Sunday, September 25, 2005

New comics 9/21

The Middle Man #2 (Javier Grillo-Marxuach/Les McClaine, Viper)
This was out a few weeks ago but I just now got my hands on it. Grillo-Marxuach's story is a fun and light action-adventure, complemented well by McClaine's clean, impressive cartoony art. It combines elements of stuff like Men in Black, Danger Girl and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it does so in a fast-paced, entertaining way with clever dialogue, so I'm happy. It's only a mini-series, but this issue feels like a set-up for ongoing adventures, and I'd be happy to see it keep going beyond four issues.

Runaways #8 (Brian K. Vaughan/Takeshi Miyazawa, Marvel)
I know I complained that the first arc was dragged out too long, and I was happy last issue to see that this was just a two-parter, but this issue wraps things up way too quickly. The conflict goes through several different stages that feel rushed, and the ending makes it seem like Vaughan's in a hurry to get Karolina out of the book, which I think is a mistake anyway. The ideas behind this story are interesting, but the hurried execution (especially when half of the previous issue was devoted to an unrelated matter) is disappointing. I trust that Vaughan is preparing for potential future stories, so we'll see Karolina again, but this was still a weak issue.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Movies opening this week

The Baxter (Michael Showalter, Michelle Williams, Elizabeth Banks, Justin Theroux, dir. Michael Showalter)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This movie has gotten some pretty bad reviews, but I found it perfectly charming and enjoyable. Not great, no, and probably with the potential to be better than it is, but not worth such a low rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It's far too likeable for that. It's also got a great performance from Michelle Williams, who has made by far the smartest career choices of any Dawson's Creek alum. Take a look at her IMDb listing, and all she's done post-Dawson's has been challenging, often obscure indie movies. Hell, the only crappy mainstream thing she did even during the show was Halloween: H20, and that was seven years ago. Granted, some of those indie movies turned out to be lame, but she's clearly constantly taking chances and pushing herself; the roles also span a number of different types. It seems like it's paid off, too, since she's got a big role in one of this year's prime Oscar-bait movies (Brokeback Mountain), and is already receiving awards buzz for it. Meanwhile, Katie Holmes's big career move involves dating an insane megalomaniac. Opened limited Aug. 26; in Las Vegas this week

Corpse Bride (Voices of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, dir. Tim Burton & Mike Johnson)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I really love Tim Burton, so I had high hopes for this movie and was a little disappointed. It's very Tim Burton-y, but it sometimes feels like he's getting dangerously close to self-parody, phoning it in by just falling back on all his familar motifs. I doubt it helped that he was trying to direct two movies at once. It does look great, though, and I sort of feel like a hypocrite for complaining in my Charlie and the Chocolate Factory review that Burton ought to do something original, and then complaining when he films an original story that it's not exciting enough. But doing a film that isn't based on source material isn't enough; what I want is for Burton to break new ground, to be original, while still retaining what makes him Burton. Maybe my standards are too high. Opened limited Sept. 16; wide release this week

Flightplan (Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean, dir. Robert Schwentke)
I thought this was a really effective thriller for about an hour, when you didn't know what was going on and Schwentke was swooping his camera all over the gigantic double-decker plane, really evoking the frustration and paranoia of Jodie Foster's character. And she does a good job with it, too, playing a slightly less fierce version of her character from Panic Room (which was a much better movie). But once the pieces fall into place and the plot is revealed, the whole thing goes downhill very quickly, and I'm not sure if the well-executed suspense of the early part of the movie makes up for the stupid action cliches of the last part. Although, I'm not really sure what sort of explanation would have lived up to the suspense. I thought Red Eye was better because they didn't make a big deal about piling on twists; they just let the action speak for itself. But it wasn't like the plot of Red Eye was brilliant. It was just enough to facilitate the suspense, which was really effective. In Flightplan, the writers seem to think they have this awesome twist, when really all they have is a building of tension. Jeremiah Kipp makes an interesting point in his review in Slant: He says that this is a story that couldn't possibly have a satisfying outcome. And in a way he's right; the script writes itself into a corner building up suspense, and only sets itself up for failure. That's why Red Eye worked: There was no twist. The bad guy showed up, stated his motive and acted on it. We weren't sitting around waiting to find out what the big secret was. We were just caught up in identifying with Rachel McAdams. On a completely different note, it was quite serendipitous that I just saw The Lady Vanishes a couple of weeks ago, since this has a very similar plot, right down to the gimmick of the missing person writing something in mist on the window. The Lady Vanishes also had a nonsensical reveal, but at least it remained entertaining while bouncing through inane twists. Wide release

Monday, September 19, 2005

Summer TV wrap-up

The 4400 (USA)
This remains a guilty pleasure for me, and something I might not watch if it were on during the regular season. But despite the sometimes wooden dialogue and acting and often predictable plotting, the season wrapped up on a high note, proving that the producers did have some cards left up their sleeves even after revealing so much about the 4400 in last year's mini-series. I even almost believe that they have a well thought-out plan, although I'm not sure I'm ready to grant them that yet. The alternate reality episode was a highlight, even if it was a gimmick straight out of Star Trek. I liked that they let it have consequences rather than just returning everything to normal at the end. The finale, too, was satisfying, wrapping up a number of long-running plotlines while opening up new avenues to explore next season (which I definitely plan to watch).

Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi)
There's still one more episode to go in the mini-season (new episodes resume in January), but I'm throwing it in anyway. I started watching this because of glowing reviews and recommendations from friends, and I've found it to be interesting and involving, if not quite the brilliant drama some critics make it out to be. It took me a few episodes to get my bearings on the large cast of characters, and I'm sure there are nuances from the first season that I'm still not familiar with. But I feel like I know what's going on now, and a lot of it is very complex and layered. I like the show's seriousness, and I like that they are willing to take risks and kill off important characters or make big changes. Sometimes, like The 4400, it ends up with cheesy sci-fi cliches, but it more often than not avoids them. I'm glad to see two of the driving forces behind one of my favorite sci-fi series, Deep Space Nine, heading up interesting sci-fi dramas these days (Ronald D. Moore on Battlestar, and Ira Steven Behr on The 4400). And with all the quickie sci-fi cash-ins on the networks this fall, it's also nice to see cable taking the time to get it right, and not just jumping on a bandwagon.

The Closer (TNT)
In my mid-summer assessment, I named this one of my favorite shows on TV, and it probably still is, although, as I suspected, the police procedural nature of the show eventually started to bore me. But, also as I suspected, the dialogue, characterization and overall visual style remained top-notch, and this is still one of the most well-written shows on TV. I usually dislike procedurals for their continuity-free perp-of-the-week formats, but this show has kept up a nice balance, focusing on a different crime each week but building character development and even an overall plot arc into the season. I actually worry a little that they've allowed too much change, since the finale was really a complete turnaround from the pilot, and if her entire squad now loves her, I'm not sure what conflict is left for Brenda to face. Still, the evolution of the characters into a unified team has been a pleasure to watch, and I'm sure there will be some interesting new antagonists for next season.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)
This one was quite the surprise, as early ads made it look like a dumb sitcom. It turned out to be way better than the overhyped eating disorder "comedy" Starved, which was pretty vulgar and annoying. This is vulgar and brilliant, with Seinfeld-ian characters who have no redeeming qualities but are lovable nonetheless, and storylines that push boundaries without being self-consciously "edgy" (like Starved). It's also absolutely hilarious. Ratings were pretty weak, even for FX, but I hope they take a chance and give the show a second season, especially since this entire season only lasted for seven episodes.

Rescue Me (FX)
I was lukewarm on this show coming out of last season and into this season, but it picked up near the middle for several episodes and then mostly fizzled out toward the end. The finale was very good, though, even if a lot of the storylines were tied up in very predictable ways. It sometimes seems like they keep writing themselves into corners on this show, and there were a number of storylines this season that just kind of faded out without any resolution. I also wonder if any time they get stuck they just decide to kill someone off; the death of Connor felt especially contrived, even if the aftermath was handled very well. I find myself in exactly the same position on this show as I was after last season: I don't like it nearly as much as many critics, but the good outweighs the bad enough that I'll tune in again for another season.


Despite what I said back when I talked about the nominations, I did end up watching the entire Emmy telecast. Or, I was at least half-watching while doing other things, which is as much attention as something like this possibly deserves. I've long since learned not to put stock in awards shows, so various upsets and injustices don't really bother me. I was happy about a number of things, including Lost's win for best drama, J.J. Abrams' win for directing the Lost pilot, William Shatner and James Spader's wins for Boston Legal, the relative low number of wins for Desperate Housewives in categories it doesn't belong in, deserved wins for The Daily Show, and writing wins for Arrested Development and House, two shows I don't watch but definitely respect. I'm not even that annoyed at all the undeserved wins for Everybody Loves Raymond, since I find it charming and amusing enough that the obligatory valedictory awards don't upset me. I'll be far madder if Will & Grace cleans up next year for its final season (especially since there are several new shows premiering this month that should be able to liven up the anemic comedy categories).

As for the show itself, it was your typical bloated awards show (although it did come in on time), full of awkward moments and lame jokes and long, pointless segments. The "Emmy Idol" bit was particularly awful, though, as amusing as it was to see Donald Trump in overalls and to hear the Star Trek theme belted out by an opera singer (shame they didn't use the lyrics). And the opening number with Earth Wind & Fire and the Black Eyed Peas singing about the past TV season was one of the most painful things I've ever seen on any awards show. I love Ellen DeGeneres, but most of her segments were really flat, and only her monologue had any real good jokes in it. Still, not any worse on the whole than the Oscars, as long as you don't take these sort of things too seriously (and who does, besides the nominees?).

New comics 9/14

Desolation Jones #3 (Warren Ellis/J.H. Williams III, DC/Wildstorm)
This is a lot more straightforward than the last two issues, and it makes for a stronger story without all the confusing plot threads to keep track of. Ellis shows us a more sympathetic side of the lead character, and Williams really shows off some of the daring artwork that he showcased for so long on Promethea. Only a small part of the storyline's overall mystery is solved in this issue, though, so while it was a nice break, next time we'll no doubt be back to the dense and confusing main plot.

Fables #41 (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham, DC/Vertigo)
Willingham wraps up the "Homelands" story in a very satisfying fashion, offering up an intriguing twist and some great moral ambiguity, as well as refusing to tie up everything in a neat bow. Now that we know who the Adversary is, the series has a whole new driving force, but solving the mystery in no way takes away from its central appeal. I hope that Willingham will take some time to tell different sorts of stories before getting back to the battle with the Adversary, which certainly has plenty of potential for more interesting material in the future.

Gravity #4 (Sean McKeever/Mike Norton, Marvel)
I realize that this series has succeeded by playing on traditional superhero conventions to great effect, but this issue was maybe a little too conventional for me. Everything that happened was completely predictable, and I have a feeling that the series will wrap up in a predictable way next issue. McKeever has still done a great job of showing the title character's hopes and insecurities, and setting him apart from other similar heroes. And there is a warmth to the story that shines through very strongly. When I read the first issue, I compared it to Astro City, which takes superhero conventions and looks at them with fresh eyes, and in the close of the series I just hope that McKeever keeps his outlook fresh.

Mnemovore #6 (Hans Rodionoff & Ray Fawkes/Mike Huddleston, DC/Vertigo)
My interest in this series kind of flagged as it went on, and the ending is a little underwhelming. It's not helped by giant ads right in the middle of what should be a creepy, atmospheric ending. I like that there isn't a happy ending and things are left sort of ambiguous, but I think maybe I should have waited for the trade, since the story probably reads better in one sitting (and without all the intrusive ads).

The Pulse #11 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Gaydos, Marvel)
Just when I was ready to give up on this book entirely, it comes back with probably the strongest issue of its entire run. With Gaydos back on art and an old-fashioned mystery at the core, it felt like an old issue of Alias, just without the swearing. Bendis plays to all his strengths, including using an obscure character as the mystery's centerpiece, and giving huge superheroes down-to-earth dialogue about everyday concerns (and no doubt working out his own feelings on parenthood in the process). This feels like it has the chance to be what Alias used to be: a smart, personal book that allows Bendis to explore forgotten corners of the Marvel universe and the inner life of what I think is his best character (Jessica Jones). I'm definitely back on board, as long as we're not stuck with a House of M aftermath tie-in anytime soon.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Festival envy

I've been reading several ongoing accounts of the Toronto Film Festival, including on the AV Club blog, and in the New York Times, and on Cinematical, as well as Slant's preview coverage of the New York Film Festival, and it really makes me wish I could get out to some of these big festivals. There seems to be such a wealth of interesting and challenging material at Toronto, with a great mix of high-profile premieres and buzzed-about indies and just random foreign and underground movies that won't ever be shown elsewhere. And New York looks like it'll have a lot of the same elements. I've tried for the past few years to convince the powers-that-be at Las Vegas Weekly to send me to Sundance, which is only a few hours' drive from here, so far to no avail. I'd actually rather go to a festival like Toronto or New York (or Telluride, another recent intriguing festival) that's not so bogged down in industry hype and deal-making and celebrity sightings (although Toronto seems to have its share). I just want a chance to spend 10 days taking in the kinds of movies that I rarely have a chance to see here in Vegas, and soaking up the film culture atmosphere (which I'd probably find tiresome if I spent all my time in it). Instead I have to make do with CineVegas, which is a great thing for Las Vegas and a fun way to spend a week, but not quite the same.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Movies opening this week

9 Songs (Kieran O'Brien, Margo Stilley, dir. Michael Winterbottom)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I saw this back in June at CineVegas and was mildly disappointed. When I first heard of it (which seems like forever ago), I was excited, because it's clearly a movie that's pushing boundaries. But by the time I saw it, it had already gotten so many bad reviews that my expectations were low, and it pretty much met them. Not a terrible movie, but definitely a missed opportunity, I think. Opened limited July 22; in Las Vegas this week

Just Like Heaven (Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Jon Heder, dir. Mark Waters)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I want to mention something that I touched on only briefly in my review, both because I had limited space and because it spoils a key plot point. So if you plan to see the movie and don't want to know what happens, stop reading here. Okay, so when Reese Witherspoon's character (Elizabeth) first shows up, she appears to be a ghost (i.e., dead). We see her get in a car accident at the beginning of the movie, so we assume she's dead, as does Mark Ruffalo's character (David). About halfway through the movie, they discover that Elizabeth isn't dead; she's in a coma, and her spirit is sort of floating in limbo. Now, to me it seemed fairly obvious that something like this would happen, since you can't very well have the two characters fall in love and live happily ever after if one of them is dead (unless the other one commits suicide to be with his love; that might have made for a more interesting movie). I think, then, that this development is done more for plot expediency than anything else.

However, the story shifts in the last third or so to focus on Elizabeth and David's efforts to stop Elizabeth's sister from pulling the plug on the comatose Elizabeth. A doctor even uses the words "persistent state" to describe what's happening to Elizabeth. David and Elizabeth are frantic to stop the plug-pulling, since although Elizabeth appears unresponsive (and has signed consent forms saying she wants to be taken off life support in this kind of situation), her spirit is, of course, still alive. I don't know when the movie was written (and it's based on a novel) or filmed related to the Terry Schiavo case, but it ends up coming across as an impassioned argument for keeping patients on life support no matter what, since their spirit might just be floating around out there somewhere. The doctor who keeps pushing to take Elizabeth off life support is portrayed as an arrogant asshole, and of course keeping her plugged in is ultimately the right choice, since she eventually wakes up (and they live happily ever after, blah blah blah). Again, I think most of this was done for plot expediency (there needs to be a way for the two to get together, and there needs to be an obstacle keeping them apart in the last part of the film), not to make a political statement, but it's interesting and a little unsettling nonetheless. Wide release

Lord of War (Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan, Ethan Hawke, dir. Andrew Niccol)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I really wanted to like this movie more than I did, because I think Andrew Niccol is immensely talented and I want to see him succeed (although I prefer his sci-fi stuff to this more real world-based drama). That said, I think there was a lot to like in this film. The main problem is probably that Niccol had too many ideas, and he tried to cram them all into two hours, strung together with extensive voiceover. I think voiceover gets a bad rap from critics and can be a really effective tool, and it works that way during a lot of this film. But Niccol uses it as a crutch too often, and it gets annoying sometimes. Still, this is a movie that thinks about real issues, has style to burn and features a lot of really sharp writing, so if its main problem is being too ambitious, that's not so bad. Wide release

Monday, September 12, 2005

Weekend viewing

Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
This was rushed into theaters here without a press screening, so I actually went and paid to see it (crazy, I know) over the weekend. I'm not sure if I'd call it the best documentary of the year (I'm still partial to The Aristocrats), but it was very good, and managed, like all of the good documentaries this year, to get a great deal of mileage out of what could have been a ten-minute segment on a newsmagazine. Grizzly-obsessed Timothy Treadwell is so weird and crazy that Herzog could probably have just strung together a bunch of his footage without comment and made a fascinating movie, but he does a good job of pressing things further and thinking carefully about what Treadwell's obsession meant, both to Treadwell himself and to the world at large. I love the way he leaves the camera on his subjects just a little too long after interviewing them, showing the awkwardness that results, just like he lets Treadwell's various "takes" of his deluded monologues run uninterrupted, giving us insight into the process of filmmaking and the ways that people perform for a camera, even when no one else is present. Herzog is a ridiculously prolific filmmaker (he's got two other movies out this year alone), and I'm sort of ashamed to admit that not only have I not seen any of his other films, I've not heard of most of them. I'll have to work on that.

Romy and Michele: In the Beginning (Robin Schiff, 2005)
I know, I know. But I had some mail-related issues, and none of my Netflix movies showed up, and I've had this on tape for almost four months (it premiered on the ABC Family Channel in May). And I love, love, love Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. It's one of those movies that no one can convince me is bad. It's got some of the greatest non-sequtur one-liners this side of The Big Lebowski, and two totally bizarre yet perfectly drawn characters in Romy and Michele. They are the closest thing to female versions of Bill and Ted or Wayne and Garth, and yet so much more than that simplistic description implies. Anyway, a TV movie prequel with different actors is always a bad sign no matter what, but I had some small hope since Robin Schiff, who wrote and directed this movie, also wrote the original. And there are some very, very small glimmers of what made the first one so great. But the casting is weak and the main actors (especially Alex Breckenridge as Michele) do not capture what made the characters work. The plot - not that the original had the most sophisticated story - is completely nonsensical and half-assed. And of course the production values are on the level of, well, a TV movie. Definitely only worthwhile for big Romy and Michele fans (like me), but I'm glad I finally watched it. Now I can reuse the tape.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

New comics 9/8

Some of these are holdovers from last week that were late shipping to my local store.

Astonishing X-Men #12 (Joss Whedon/John Cassaday, Marvel)
The arc wraps up mostly without redeeming itself, and it's too bad, because the first six issues of this title were great, and the next six were marred by cliched plotting and extreme lateness. At least the dialogue is still very sharp and, as Paul O'Brien noted, Cassaday could illustrate the phone book and it'd be worth reading. But I really think that Whedon could have come up with something more original and exciting than "the Danger Room comes alive and fights the X-Men" to focus on for six issues. The cliffhanger that sets up the next arc is sort of intriguing, but it's also a fairly familiar storyline. Plus we'll have to wait four months to find out if Whedon can turn it into something interesting. That said, this is still leagues ahead of the other core X-books, and even if it's sometimes disappointing, it's also the strongest take on the X-Men since Morrison left, so I'll certainly keep reading.

Cable & Deadpool #19 (Fabian Nicieza/Patrick Zircher, Marvel)
A sort of palate-cleansing issue between storylines, with Deadpool and Cable sitting in a bar, chatting about their childhoods. A little too serious for this book, I think, which is best when it's a goofy action-adventure, not a psychoanalysis of the lead characters. There were still some good lines, but it did feel like a placeholder issue, and I'm looking forward to some campy fun next issue with the new storyline.

The Expatriate #3 (B. Clay Moore/Jason Latour, Image)
Whoa. That was unexpected. I was mildly intrigued by the first two issues of this book, which were a little confusing but presented a stylish, fast-paced spy adventure with a man on the run from the CIA in the 1960s. Latour's art has a sort of classic thriller look to it, and the concept had promise. This issue starts with the hero in France after fleeing Mexico in the last issue, but it soon takes a strange turn, as he's captured by his pursuers and (spoiler alert) beheaded and offered up to some alien/robot thing. Yeah. So I was a little surprised by that, which is cool, I guess, but it changes the whole premise of the book into one I'm not sure I want to read. I had pretty much the opposite reaction to Randy Lander. I mean, I liked the stylish 1960s international spy thriller. I don't know about some weird sci-fi book, but I'll give it at least another issue to see where it's going. It just seems odd to me that, if you are going to have a twist that so jarringly alters the direction of the series, why you would wait until the end of the third issue. Anyone who would have liked the sci-fi book has long forgotten that this series even exists, and anyone (like me) who's been picking it up for what it was billed as may be feeling a little cheated. Especially since it hasn't exactly been shipping on time. If the change had come at the end of the first issue, I would have felt like I could either keep reading or not knowing what the book was about. But now I do feel a little like the rug has been pulled out from under me, and not necessarily in a good way.

Fell #1 (Warren Ellis/Ben Templesmith, Image)
Now this is the Warren Ellis I remember. Of the three new ongoing series Ellis has launched in the last few months, this is far and away the best. It's interesting that one of the people who popularized decompressed storytelling has come up with a book that tells a complete story in each issue and packs a huge amount of content into only 16 dense pages. I didn't even realize that the story was shorter, page-wise, than a normal comic until I read about it in the little essay at the back. Templesmith works well in the rigid nine-panel grid that Ellis has set up, retaining his weird, sometimes abstract style while telling a clear story that's easy to follow. Ellis also sets up a concept that has plenty of potential, with a seemingly normal police detective coming to work in a sort of magical realist city known as Snowtown, which teeters on the edge of the supernatural but never quite falls in. Although this issue does indeed tell a complete story, there's obviously an ongoing narrative as well, making this easily the most intriguing opening of an Ellis series in quite some time.

House of M #6 (Brian Michael Bendis/Olivier Coipel, Marvel)
Even when things happen in this book, it feels like nothing is happening. In this issue, the heroes team up to go to Genosha and confront Magneto. Everything proceeds exactly as you'd expect, with no surprises, not even the supposed twist at the end. I'm waiting for there to be some big revelations or world-changing consequences, but the story's almost over and there's nothing. Coipel's art is still very nice and Bendis gets in some decent character moments, but the only way I could imagine this being remotely interesting is if they condensed it to half the length and completely did away with all the hype about it being a big important event.

Revelations #1 (Paul Jenkins/Humberto Ramos, Dark Horse)
This was much more of a traditional murder mystery than I expected, given its Vatican setting. I suppose more of the religious themes will come out in future issues, but for now I like them in the background. It plays like a decent mystery novel, but Ramos's experimental style is kind of off-putting. His regular manga-influenced, cartoony, kinetic style probably wouldn't be appropriate, but this more serious style still has all the characters looking like children with growth disorders. I'm unsure about this, but I'll probably keep reading because I like Jenkins and it's been too long since he's written anything that I've had any interest in.

Y the Last Man #37 (Brian K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra, DC/Vertigo)
Vaughan throws in a great twist at the end of this issue that really ups the stakes for this series, and after three years of Yorick running around in secret, makes a whole lot of sense. After last issue's dense history of Yorick and Beth's relationship, their quest for reconciliation is sort of side-tracked in this issue, but the side track is actually more interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it all comes together.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Movies opening this week

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott, Jennifer Carpenter, dir. Scott Derrickson)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm disappointed that this is getting such negative reviews, because I really think it's one of the best movies of the year. There are moments when it's hokey or clumsy, but I think casting all these excellent actors elevates any missteps in the scripting and lends the whole movie an air of respectability, which is something it needs to make it work. What bothers me the most about some of the negative reviews is the sort of closed-minded reactionary stance that people are taking about the religious/supernatural subject matter. I am not a religious person in any way (in fact you could even describe me as anti-religious), but the way that some critics are taking what to me is an endorsement of keeping an open mind about the potential unknown wonders of the universe as some right-wing screed against science and in favor of widespread exorcisms is really troublesome. I usually like Slate's David Edelstein, but his review is such condescending, elitist bullshit that it really kind of pissed me off. The AV Club's Scott Tobias does the same thing in his review. I mean, if you think the plotting was bad or the dialogue was cheesy or the acting was ineffective, okay. I may disagree, but okay.

But Edelstein calls it an "assault on the reality-based secular community" and "propaganda." Not only do I think he's overreacting to the movie's perceived message, but I also think that he's perceiving the message wrong. Yes, Derrickson sides with Wilkinson's priest, who is a man of deep faith. But the movie does present both sides of the argument, even depicting the same scenes twice, once from the demonic perspective and again from the medical perspective. I didn't find the prosecutor to be a caricatured villain; he's clearly as principled as Linney's defense attorney. And while the message is definitely to be open to the idea that medication isn't the only solution to life's problems, that's also the message of plenty New Age-y, hippiefied movies that have nothing at all to do with Christianity. If I were presented with this situation in real life, I'd not hesitate to convict the priest of negligent homicide. I don't believe in possession and I don't believe in God, and this movie didn't convince me otherwise. It did, however, represent a point of view that, whether people like David Edelstein and Scott Tobias (or me, for that matter) like it or not, is prevalent in America. And unlike the blood-gushing, heavy-handed Passion of the Christ (which, for the record, I thought was a good movie), it did so in a balanced and measured way. I don't think you have to share that point of view in order to find the film intriguing for the questions it raises; questions that, however much we may want them to, are not going to go away. Wide release

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Weekend viewing

The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)
After having seen so many Hitchcock movies, I sometimes wonder if all that's left is minor work that's best left unseen. And then I see a movie like this, which, along with The 39 Steps, is considered a highlight of Hitchcock's early British work. I found The 39 Steps disappointing, a half-baked story that was fleshed out better in North by Northwest. But this is a clever, highly entertaining movie that's as much a comedy as a thriller (I actually got up about 25 minutes in to look at the Netflix sleeve and make sure that there was some sort of intrigue on the way). The central mystery is, of course, largely irrelevant, and the film is as much a wry commentary on the unknowingly deleterious effects of staunch English politeness as it is a suspense thriller about a woman who suddenly vanishes. I should know better than to underestimate Hitchcock, and this movie reminds me why.

The War of the Roses (Danny Devito, 1989)
Maybe I should have also known better than to rent this alleged black comedy, which is neither funny nor really dark, since it has this disturbingly Puritanical bent to it. Mostly it's just repugnant and pointless, slow and then really repetitive. It takes almost half the movie for the Roses to decide to get divorced, in which time you never get a sense either that they love each other or that they are descending into loathing for each other. All you get is a bunch of self-consciously "grotesque" camera angles from Devito and mean-spirited humor that makes no point whatsoever. Devito's lawyer character asks at the end of the movie, after telling the whole story, "What's the point?" and professes not to know. Neither do I.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Fall preview

Browsing through Coming Soon to prepare for putting together my Las Vegas Weekly fall movie preview, I noticed something strange: I am actually looking forward to seeing a large number of these films. Overall, this has been an abysmal year for movies. By the middle of the summer last year, I had already seen four of my top five films of the year (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Before Sunset, The Dreamers, Spider-Man 2). I would say that two of those (Eternal Sunshine, Before Sunset) are movies I consider among my favorites of all time. Now, maybe it's just that last year was an exceptionally good year for movies and this year is merely average, but I have seen very few films this year that I have really loved, and only two (Sin City and Nobody Knows - how's that for a double feature?) that I could imagine putting on a year-end top ten list.

Maybe my excitement looking over the fall releases is illusory - several high-profile movies I was excited for this summer (Batman Begins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Star Wars) turned out to be disappointments, to varying degrees, and although I've seen plenty of movies that I've liked, there haven't been many that were especially memorable or outstanding. Still, the fall looks like an embarrassment of riches when it comes to adventurous filmmaking and compelling storytelling, or at least that's what I'm hoping from reading descriptions and watching trailers. Sure, there's plenty of uninteresting awards bait: hacky tearjerkers, boring literary adaptations, lame attempts at social relevance, a belated movie version of Rent (which qualifies as all of the above).

Yet amongst all this crap are a number of movies I'm genuinely excited to see, including several that are coming out in the dog days of September. Some, like David Cronenberg's A History of Violence and Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman's MirrorMask (both part of the continued insurgence of comics into film), are opening in platform releases and will end up in Vegas who knows when. But others are wide releases, like Joss Whedon's Serenity, the big-screen version of his Firefly TV show (which I thought was horribly overrated, but I love Joss Whedon so I'm still excited for this), and Andrew Niccol's Lord of War, which looks like another clever genre deconstruction from the writer-director of Gattaca and Simone (I think I am the only person who liked that one), and Tim Burton's stop-motion Corpse Bride. It's rare that September has interesting and worthwhile major studio releases (of course these could all end up sucking, but I hope not).

Even some of the awards bait, like Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown and George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck, has me cautiously optimistic. I must be insane, because I'm actually looking forward to Woody Allen's new movie (Match Point). After such a dismal summer it's easy to forget the excitement of actually expecting movies to be good, but signs point to potential redemption in the rest of the year.

New comics 8/31

Astro City: The Dark Age #3 (Kurt Busiek/Brent Anderson, DC/Wildstorm)
I like that Busiek seems to be telling a complete story in the first book of this series, rather than just a piece of the big 16-part puzzle (although it's no doubt that as well). I wonder where he'll be going once some of this Silver Agent stuff wraps up next issue, but at the same time I'm glad that the different volumes won't just be arbitrary stopping points. This is my first time reading a big Astro City epic in individual issues rather than a trade, so I'm a little concerned about the story retaining momentum when it goes on hiatus for a while, but so far it's been an exciting read.

Powers #12 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Avon Oeming, Marvel/Icon)
The 50th issue, if you add together both volumes, so it's a big anniversary blow-out. This means a longer story which feels a little padded with a lengthy flashback, an extensive and mostly interesting interview with Bendis and Oeming, and an annoying extended letters page with comedians Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn (whom I normally find funny) answering the letters. After a couple of letters I just skimmed it, because it was repetitive and unfunny. The story wraps up the Blackguard storyline, but it keeps Deena's secret as an ongoing subplot, which I liked. The Blackguard resolution was a little underwhelming, and the flashback sometimes felt like filler, but what Bendis is doing with Deena is really interesting and I trust that all the extra stuff will be leading somewhere eventually.

Runaways #7 (Brian K. Vaughan/Takeshi Miyazawa, Marvel)
This is a decided change of pace from the epic six-parter that opened the new volume, which was serious and had far-reaching consequences. I like that Vaughan spends more time just fleshing out the characters, and the twist at the end is more amusing and low key than the heavy stuff that was going on in the last arc, and probably dragged on a little longer than necessary. I'm glad that this is just a two-parter, and I hope Vaughan holds off a bit on doing another six-part opus. Miyazawa's light, cartoony art is a good fit for this story, but I still prefer Adrian Alphona's work (which I assume returns after this arc).

Silent Dragon #2 (Andy Diggle/Leinil Francis Yu, DC/Wildstorm)
This is a definite improvement over last issue for one main reason: It makes sense and I can follow the story. It also makes better use of the futuristic setting, and gives Yu some cool high-tech stuff to draw. I'm still not entirely sure what the overall story is about, or how some of the things from last issue relate to this issue, but at least I have some idea of what's going on.

Young Avengers #6 (Allan Heinberg/Jim Cheung, Marvel)
Like Runaways, this series has opened with an epic, serious arc that dragged on a little too long, especially when this issue reveals that it was all a set-up to get the real team together and ready to go. But also like Runaways, it's got great dialogue and well-drawn characters and a breezy sense of old-school superhero fun, and the two books are still neck and neck as the best things Marvel's publishing. I'm glad to see that it's also following up the first arc with a two-parter, because that should give the series a better sense of momentum. This issue wraps up the Kang storyline a little confusingly, but it leaves room for it to be revisited at a later time. It also replaces some of the characters' crappy codenames with...different crappy codenames. That's a minor issue, though, and if they remain interesting characters, I don't really care that their names are dumb.

Also out this week: A bunch of stuff that I wanted to get, including Astonishing X-Men #12, Ex Machina #14, Revelations #1 and The Expatriate #3, which they didn't have at my local store for some reason. Hopefully I'll be able to pick them up next week.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Movies opening this week

The Constant Gardener (Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, dir. Fernando Meirelles)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I remain conflicted about this, even though I wrote an overall positive review and talked it up pretty positively on CJOB this week. On one hand, it's definitely been overpraised by most critics, and it's the kind of praise that will very likely lead to undeserved Oscar nominations. It's also undeniably heavy-handed, and does play on liberal guilt in a way that kind of undermines the very people it's allegedly trying to help. On the other hand, it points out a genuine injustice, and I don't think that the filmmakers are being disingenuous in doing so. The praise may be excessive, but the film is absolutely stunning to look at and features mostly very good performances. Most importantly, I found it a rewarding viewing experience, which is ultimately why I recommended it. But I do understand why it has made some critics very uneasy. Wide release

Junebug (Embeth Davidtz, Amy Adams, Ben McKenzie, Alessandro Nivola, dir. Phil Morrison)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I really expected to like this movie. It's my kind of genre (slow-paced, talky indie drama) and it's been getting great reviews, and a friend and fellow reviewer told me about a month ago how great she thought it was. But it just didn't work for me, especially Amy Adams' performance, which people seem to love. I actually liked her better in Standing Still, this crappy movie I saw at CineVegas. At least she was restrained. I probably should have expected the disappointment, since this has definitely been the year of disappointing movies for me. Opened limited Aug. 5; in Las Vegas this week

A Sound of Thunder (Edward Burns, Catherine McCormack, Ben Kingsley, dir. Peter Hyams)
Why did I see this movie? I wasn't assigned a review, and there was every indication that it would be terrible. Yet I went anyway. I guess I was expecting that, even if it was bad, there would be some redeeming value in the camp factor (which was basically non-existent) or the just plain cool concept and source material (a Ray Bradbury short story about a time-traveling expedition to the Cretaceous, in which someone steps on a butterfly and creates a ripple effect that completely alters the future). But there was none of that. On a pure filmmaking level, this is easily the worst movie I've seen all year. Unbelievably terrible special effects, which would be almost unforgivable in a movie made for the Sci Fi Channel, let alone one that reportedly cost $80 million. Completely incoherent plotting that can't even retain a semblance of internal consistency with its own pseudo-science. Definitely answers anyone who's been wondering whether Ed Burns has a career anymore, or deserves one. Even Ben Kingsley, whose blindingly white hairpiece is the movie's only great camp element, can't do anything to save it. I was just hoping that one of the movie's incomprehensible time waves would come along and wipe out the technology used to make it in the first place. Wide release