Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Weekend viewing

Missing (Costa-Gavras, 1982)
I've been swamped with work this past week, which means not much time for watching movies or for blogging, but I did manage to squeeze this one in over the long weekend. It's the third and final entry in my Sissy Spacek mini-festival, although I added a couple of her later movies to my Netflix queue (which means I'll probably be watching them in time to make the Sissy Spacek mini-festival an annual event). I didn't even realize until after watching this that all of the Spacek movies I watched are based on true stories. I don't know if that's particularly relevant, but I did think it was an odd coincidence.

So, right, this movie. Honestly, I was very disappointed in this film, which was nominated for a bunch of Oscars and considered quite daring in its time. It tells the true story of an American expatriate who was kidnapped in Chile (although the film doesn't mention the country's name) during a military coup. Spacek plays the wife who tries to track him down, and Jack Lemmon plays her straitlaced father-in-law, who doesn't approve of his son's pinko commie expat lifestyle. From the moment Lemmon appears on-screen, you can tell that the film is going to be about his character learning all about government corruption and the horrors of American foreign policy, opening his old-fashioned conservative eyes to the shining truths of the pinko commies. Which is fine, but it's done in such a heavy-handed manner that it nearly negates the genuine tragedy of what happened to the poor kidnapped guy (who, remember, is a real person). Spacek doesn't do a whole lot in this movie, since it's really Lemmon's show, and he's great as always. But, man, I did not need an emotionally manipulative lecture about the failure of American foreign policy, even a well-acted one.

Monday, November 28, 2005

New comics 11/23

Down #1 (Warren Ellis/Tony Harris, Image/Top Cow)
I remember when this was announced a number of years ago, along with the deluge of self-contained, non-superhero mini-series that Ellis was pushing at the time. Given the amazingly long delays that this project has endured, it's a remarkably unremarkable result that's finally made its way to stores. This reads much like those other series that came out at the time, stuff like Mek and Tokyo Storm Warning, in that it's a mildly interesting genre exercise that comes off like Ellis wrote it on the back of a napkin in between pints at the pub. With its badass rebel law-enforcement agent and upcoming art by Cully Hamner, this reminds me most of Red, which was probably my favorite of those old mini-series (not that that's saying much). Harris's art is more exaggerated and cartoony here than it is on Ex Machina, but it's still nice to look at. Since this has been reduced from six issues to four, I'll probably pick up the rest of it, but it isn't exactly Ellis's best work.

Ex Machina #16 (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
It's a good week for Tony Harris fans, even if he's leaving Down after the first issue and Ex Machina has been plagued by lateness recently. This wraps up the "Off the Grid" arc, which has been sort of low-key and short on interesting developments, and has also shied away from the political issues Vaughan tackled in earlier arcs. The addition of Mitchell's mother to the supporting cast doesn't really excite me, and the revelation about his father's death strikes me as a bit of a cliche, but I'm sure Vaughan will weave them into the overall tapestry in a way that makes this arc seem more relevant in retrospect.

Jack Cross #4 (Warren Ellis/Gary Erskine, DC)
Speaking of not exactly Ellis's best work, this wraps up the opening storyline of this book, and looks suspiciously like a final issue. Taken by itself, the four-issue story again resembles one of the Ellis minis of a few years back, an interesting but relatively insubstantial genre exercise. Since this was advertised as an ongoing series, I'd be willing to give Ellis the benefit of the doubt and see where he takes the character next, but the next issue box has only vague promises of a "new adventure" in "a few months," and no info on what that adventure might be. I'm not sure how the book's been doing sales-wise, but it looks like DC's yet to solicit the next issue, which is a bad sign. Honestly, though, if this book just fades away, I don't think it'll be much of a tragedy.

She-Hulk #2 (Dan Slott/Juan Bobillo, Marvel)
Another entertaining issue, although I'm not quite sure I understood the time paradox at the center of the trial. I like that Slott is delving into Jennifer's psyche again, and developing some interesting relationships along with the goofy superhero stuff. I'm not sure how keen I am on having a continuing arc rather than the more self-contained stories of the first volume, but so far things have certainly not dragged, so I'll give Slott the benefit of the doubt.

Young Avengers #9 (Allan Heinberg/Jim Cheung, Marvel)
This reminds me a lot of the recent arc in Runaways, with one character's alien heritage leading to an unwelcome visitor from space, in the person of a Skrull. The similarities end there, though, as this is obviously going to lead to a much grander storyline. I like how Heinberg lets different members take the spotlight in different arcs, even as we continue to learn bits and pieces about the backgrounds of each. It's nice to see Cheung back on art, too, although some of his panels look a little rushed.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Movies opening this week

Bee Season (Richard Gere, Flora Cross, Juliette Binoche, Max Minghella, dir. Scott McGehee and David Siegel)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I was hoping to like this movie, but honestly the only parts that I found remotely interesting were the spelling bees, and only then because I enjoyed trying to spell the words (I am a spelling bee fanatic), not because of any dramatic engagement. The main character even won a trophy with a bespectacled bee exactly like one that I have from fifth grade. That was a nice nostalgic twinge. The movie, however, not so good. Opened limited Nov. 11 ; in Las Vegas this week

The Dying Gaul (Peter Sarsgaard, Patricia Clarkson, Campbell Scott, dir. Craig Lucas)
Thanks to the vagaries of indie movie scheduling here in Vegas, we missed running this review in Las Vegas Weekly this week. But I saw the movie and wrote the review, dammit, so here it is in its entirety as it would have run in the paper:

Someone in Hollywood needs to declare a moratorium on featuring instant message conversations in films. No matter how they’re dressed up with visual flourishes and voice-over, conversations involving two people typing to each other on computers are inherently un-filmic and are nearly guaranteed to grind any movie to a halt. Used fleetingly in a scene or two, such conversations can be forgivable. But The Dying Gaul, the directorial debut of playwright and screenwriter Craig Lucas, is built almost entirely on these sorts of exchanges.

Set in 1995, Gaul follows aspiring screenwriter Robert (Sarsgaard), a gay man whose lover recently died of AIDS. He writes a screenplay (also called The Dying Gaul) inspired by his experience, which catches the attention of studio executive Jeffrey (Scott). Jeffrey’s hot on buying the screenplay, with one caveat: The gay couple at the center has to be changed to a heterosexual couple.

Strangely enough, the struggle over the script isn’t even the movie’s central focus; Robert gives in rather easily, and the issue essentially disappears as the film goes on. What it’s really about is a developing love triangle that also includes Jeffrey’s wife Elaine (Clarkson). A closeted bisexual, Jeffrey starts up an affair with Robert, who is still grieving over his lover’s death. Elaine, unaware of the affair, takes an instant liking to Robert, and in a misguided attempt to get to know him better poses as another gay man in an online chatroom.

From there, things get much more complicated, but unfortunately nearly all of the complications involve a lot more Internet chatting, which is the least dramatically compelling device Lucas could use to tell the story. The movie turns into a dark psychological thriller, with all three main characters acting in various reprehensible ways, Elaine especially turning from the friendly person she first appears to be into a vindictive, manipulative harpy.

It all ends like a Shakespearean tragedy, except with instant messages. Lucas seems to be going for grand and shocking, but he only ends up with muddled and unconvincing. Rather than sadness at the fate of the ugly characters, the main effect is relief. The efforts to capture a particular moment that’s so recently passed only serve to make the movie feel dated, with its quaint approaches to both technology and sexuality. Despite a strong cast, the movie is awkward and off-putting—much like instant messages. Opened limited Nov. 4; in Las Vegas this week

The Ice Harvest (John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Platt, dir. Harold Ramis)
This was a real disappointment for me, since I love pretty much everyone involved (Cusack, Thornton, Ramis). For having such high billing, Thornton actually has a very small part, and doesn't get to do much aside from utter a few funny lines. This is Cusack's movie all the way, and it's the right kind of part for him, a sad sack functionary looking for a new start, but the script is cobbled together from a lot of much better neo-noirs (see Fargo, or Thornton himself in A Simple Plan, or even Cusack in Grosse Point Blank), with lazy plotting and weak humor. There are some funny moments, and the cast has enough charisma that the movie isn't painful to sit through (Nielsen does a great femme fatale), but overall it all feels very made-for-cable, which is too bad. Wide release

Rent (Rosario Dawson, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Jesse L. Martin, dir. Chris Columbus)
First of all, I am not generally a fan of musicals, so I always go into a movie like this with skepticism. But I try to be fair, and I know that "there was too much singing" is not a valid criticism. I've not seen the play, but from everything people tell me, the film is incredibly faithful, and, judging by the screening I went to, is guaranteed to please the hardcore fans. If you love the play, you'll love the movie, and anything I say is pretty much irrelevant. That faithfulness (which also includes using almost all of the original Broadway cast) is great for those people who see the play as a precious, untouchable artifact, but it's not so great for the film's existence as its own entity. Like he did with his Harry Potter movies, Columbus doesn't so much make a movie as he just films the play. Yes, it's shot on real New York City streets, but they're still decorated in such a way that they look like soundstages, and the whole thing feels confined, like it takes place in a fantasy world.

The other problem is that, whether intentionally or not, the film makes having AIDS and being poor look glamorous and fun. Yes, there is a death, but it's not a main character, and it's used more as a crutch to develop the other characters than as a tragedy for the one who dies, who is the most over-the-top caricature in the whole film as it is. The ending, which I won't spoil, is the worst kind of rosy cop-out, one that makes it seem like AIDS may be bad, but a little love and some pretty singing can make it all better. Watching the film reminded me a lot of watching Angels in America, in that both were probably revolutionary when they were first staged back in the early or mid 90s, but nowadays they just come off as quaint and even a little naive.

I realize this makes it sound like I hated the film, which I didn't. The acting is fine and the music is good. It does exactly what it needs to do to please its audience. That just wasn't enough for me. Wide release

Monday, November 21, 2005

New comics 11/16

Spent the weekend visiting family in Chicago, so I'm a little late on this, and I'm just going to stick to the first issues I picked up this week.

All-Star Superman #1 (Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely, DC)
Actually, I didn't even buy this one, but I was pleased to see it come in the mail from DC publicity. I'm always back and forth on Morrison's writing, but I like almost everything Quitely does, and even though I have no interest in Superman, I was curious to see what they'd do with it. This has gotten rave reviews elsewhere, but I found it pretty unimpressive. Sure, Quitely's art is as pretty as ever, and Morrison inserts some weird sci-fi ideas into the story, but ultimately, it's still just a Superman story, and doesn't tell me anything new or different about Superman that I couldn't have read in a million other stories. I've never been all that keen on the big, iconic superheroes, and if people like Morrison and Quitely can't convince me to be, then I probably never will.

Black Harvest #1 (Josh Howard, Devil's Due)
I picked this up on a whim because it looked sort of cool and I've read all sorts of good things about Howard's last series, Dead@17. And indeed, it was sort of cool. It's hard to tell yet how it will turn out overall, since this issue is a lot of set-up and mysterious unexplained goings-on, but so far it's got a nice creepy atmosphere, some interesting characters and attractive, angular art by Howard that reminds me of Michael Avon Oeming. It's not clear to me from this issue how long the series is, but I assume it's a mini of three or four issues, and I'll probably end up picking up the rest.

The Thing #1 (Dan Slott/Andrea DiVito, Marvel)
This is the kind of thing I never would have bought if not for the involvement of Dan Slott, who's done wonderful things with neglected corners of the Marvel universe in his She-Hulk and GLA series. I was still hesitant, though, since the Thing is not exactly part of a neglected corner of the Marvel universe, and I never had much interest in him or the Fantastic Four. I picked this issue up anyway to give Slott the benefit of the doubt, and it was perfectly okay but I doubt I'll read more. Neither as funny as GLA nor as weird and meta as She-Hulk, this is basically a straightforward superhero book that could have been from 10 years ago or 20 years ago with very little difference. That's not necessarily bad if that's what you're looking for, or if you're a big fan of the Thing, but I don't fit the target audience. I've always found DiVito's art to be hopelessly generic, and that impression continues. It tells the story well enough, but it doesn't stand out at all, which pretty much describes this entire issue.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Movies opening this week

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, dir. Mike Newell)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Although I preferred the last movie to this one, the Potter franchise remains both durable and entertaining, and it looks like it might be able to remain so through the end of the series. It worries me a little that after the daring and original Alfonso Cuaron, they handed things over to Newell, who's sort of a generic journeyman (although he does a fine job), and the next movie is being directed by David Yates, who's only got British TV experience. It seems like the best way to ensure quality is to continue employing directors with vision and style who can still maintain the tone of the franchise. I guess I'll have to wait before passing judgment. (Also, is it just me or is the scene between Harry and Moaning Myrtle in the bathtub disturbingly and sort of perversely sexual?) Wide release

Walk the Line (Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, dir. James Mangold)
This is definitely this year's version of Ray - a competent and unadventurous biopic elevated by a great performance (or, in the case of this movie, two). Phoenix is very good as Johnny Cash, although Witherspoon is even better as June Carter, and it wouldn't surprise me if she got the predicted Oscar for this role. The movie, however, is paint-by-numbers stuff, connecting the dots from major event to major event, never showing the characters taking a breather and just acting like normal people. It also makes Cash look like sort of a dick, treating his first wife with dismissive contempt mostly because she doesn't fawn over his musical career, even though she's just trying to be a good mother. Although the movie is framed as a love story between Johnny and June, I wasn't honestly that keen on seeing them together, since it just made me feel bad for Johnny's first wife. Apparently one of Cash's daughters was upset because she thought the movie made her mother look bad, but to me it made the mother look like a sensible person and Cash look like an unhinged drug addict. Which, you know, he pretty much was. Wide release

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Weekend viewing

Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005)
Given all the lavish praise this movie's gotten, I sort of expected a relative disappointment, and with my expectations lowered a bit, they ended up being met. This is a very well-crafted and well-acted film that tells its story in a straightforward and unpretentious manner, but it's often so dry that I can definitely understand the criticism that Clooney might have been better off making a documentary. Much of the most compelling footage in the film is the historical archive of McCarthy himself, and it seems almost a cheat to get to see the real McCarthy but not the real Murrow. That said, David Strathairn gives Murrow a wonderful quiet dignity, and Clooney does make something of an effort to expand beyond the dry history lesson with a subplot about married co-workers that illuminates some of the values of the time. I also liked his subtle undermining of Murrow and co.'s authority with the inclusion of the cigarette ad that lauds Murrow's viewers for their intelligence while convincing them to smoke more. Murrow may have been admirable, but he clearly wasn't infallible, and I like that Clooney isn't afraid of that fact.

Overnight (Tony Montana & Mark Brian Smith, 2003)
This documentary about self-destructing Boondock Saints director Troy Duffy is a seriously depressing look at the movie business. Duffy is clearly an asshole and an egomaniac, and this movie, made by two former friends and business associates of his, is designed to make him look bad (which, admittedly, doesn't appear to be that hard). But I found myself coming away with a surprising degree of sympathy for Duffy, who, although clearly his own worst enemy, was in some sense screwed over by the Hollywood machine. A lot of attention is paid to his volatile temper and his tendency to alienate people, but the movie glosses over what attracted Harvey Weinstein to him in the first place, and doesn't bother to explain why Miramax would lavish such money and attention on him and then pull it all away; it couldn't have all been his personality, since that was clearly one of his selling points at first. This isn't necessarily a fault of the filmmakers, who had unlimited access to Duffy but none to Weinstein; it's just an interesting comment on how capricious the film business can be. If Duffy behaved in exactly the same way but became a huge success, everyone would be forgiving him rather than making scathing documentaries about how he's such an asshole. And, really, Boondock has a huge cult following now, despite being, well, not very good. The movie notes that Duffy doesn't get to share in any of the DVD profits, which, whatever you think of him as a person, definitely seems unfair.

Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)
I originally meant to watch this to prepare for the boxing film series I moderated last month, but obviously I didn't have the time (not that it much mattered after only five people showed up to the series anyway). I was sort of sick of boxing movies after that, so this has been sitting on my TV for a few weeks. Watching it, I did appreciate that it wasn't quite the same arc as the boxing movies I saw for the film series, and generally didn't focus on the corruptness of the sport. It was rather more about the dreams of the lead character, and in that sense it did follow the typical formula. It's another one of those movies with scenes and lines so famous and overplayed that it's hard to appreciate them fresh, but even so I was underwhelmed. It does its job, and Stallone captures the mook with a heart of gold, but it didn't exactly move me to cheer.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

New comics 11/9

The Book of Lost Souls #2 (J. Michael Straczynski/Colleen Doran, Marvel/Icon)
I wasn't sure what to expect after reading the first issue, but it seemed like there was an interesting enough premise to stick around for. This issue, however, is awful, and I doubt I'll bother to pick up the next one. Doran's art is still beautifully detailed and expressive, but the story is heavy-handed and wildly overwritten, with the kind of tired battered woman cliches that would be appropriate for a Lifetime TV movie. The fantasy aspects of the story only serve to make it more obvious and insipid. If this is where Straczynski's going with this book, I won't be following him.

Cable & Deadpool #22 (Fabian Nicieza/Patrick Zircher, Marvel)
In the third part of this arc, the plot finally starts to make some sense, but it's still not particularly compelling, especially since I don't know the supposedly obvious (or so the next issue blurb claims) identity of the villain. In the meantime, all the usual compliments apply, but I'm looking forward to a new storyline to recapture my interest in the plot.

DMZ #1 (Brian Wood/Riccardo Burchielli, DC/Vertigo)
I thought Wood's Couscous Express was vastly overrated, but I liked the concept of this series (a near future in which a U.S. civil war has transformed Manhattan into a no man's land) enough to give it a try.'s okay. It's pretty much all set up, so it'll take another issue to see where things start to go. I still think the concept has promise, but Wood's writing remains sort of awkward, and the political allegory stuff is not all that interesting yet.

New Warriors #5 (Zeb Wells/Skottie Young, Marvel)
It's odd that this wraps up the two-part story only for there to be one issue left in the series. This really is paced much more like an old-school ongoing than a mini-series, and it might read strangely in the inevitable trade. This issue even ends with a little twist that would serve perfectly as a building subplot, but I don't think it'll be touched on before the series ends. Once again, a very fun read that I'd love to see continue beyond six issues.

The Pulse #12 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Gaydos, Marvel)
After last issue's excellent return to form, this is a little disappointing. The half with Jessica's baby being born feels like a subplot from New Avengers, but Ben Urich's investigation into the D-Man mystery is still exactly the kind of thing that Bendis used to do so well in Alias. I'll be glad when the baby's born and we don't have to see the Avengers in every issue; I really wish this book stood on its own more, again like Alias used to do.

Y the Last Man #39 (Brian K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra & Goran Sudzuka, DC/Vertigo)
Double crosses! Cliffhangers! And an interesting solution to the problem of Yorick being exposed in the press. Once again, Vaughan uses his shock endings as jumping off points to take the book into unexpected territory and never backs down from the drastic changes he makes on the last pages of most issues. This doesn't really feel like the conclusion to a story arc, but other than that it's another fabulous issue. Sudzuka steps in and pencils half the issue for Guerra, but their styles are so similar (and both inked by Jose Marzan Jr.) that I couldn't even tell the difference.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

TV update: New shows

Everybody Hates Chris (UPN)
After giving this one the highest rating of any new show in my TV column for Las Vegas Weekly, I stopped watching it after three episodes. Why? Well, for starters, I'm watching two other shows in the same time slot (Alias and Survivor) that I don't plan to give up, and since I'm often out in the evenings at movie screenings, I can only record so many things at once. On top of that, while I found the pilot (upon which I based my four-star review) very funny and warm, the subsequent episodes were less funny and sort of cliched. That said, it's certainly a pleasant show to watch, and when Alias goes on its eight-week hiatus, I may go back and give this show another shot.

Invasion (ABC)
I pegged this as the best new drama of the season back when it premiered, and even though other reviews have been mixed and a lot of viewers find the show too slow, I stand by that assessment. Part of the reason is that this season's new shows just haven't been as good as last season's new shows, but I do think this is an interesting drama with a lot of layers that some people don't really give it credit for. Yes, the plot progression is sometimes maddeningly slow (this week's episode didn't even feature a single supernatural happening), but I think that Shaun Cassidy and the rest of the writers have established a tone and pace that works for the story they're trying to tell. The show's characters are finding things out at a rate just as slow as the viewers are, and it's often as frustrating for them as it is for us. This is a show about a possibly dangerous unknown piercing the veil of normalcy surrounding a small town, and I think it does a very good job of playing on the fears of anything foreign coming in and taking over our wholesome American life (just like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, from which the show takes its name and much of its inspiration). But more than just the political allegory, I think this show does a fascinating job of using the supernatural to explore the idea of the crumbling family, the way that things like divorce can make us think that our parents or children or ex-spouses are such different people now that they've actually become aliens. I think at its heart this is a show about a man trying to keep his family together, not just in the face of divorce or re-marriage or premarital sex, but in the face of actual aliens. And that's what keeps me watching every week.

Kitchen Confidential (Fox)
It looks like this is on its way out after only airing three episodes, and I'm a little disappointed, but not heartbroken. It's a good show with funny moments, a solid cast and interesting characters, but it's definitely not spectacular, at least not in the few episodes that made it to air. It has a polished sort of urban sophistication that reminds me of Darren Star's last failed dramedy, Miss Match, which was also likable but not quite compelling enough to pull in a dedicated audience. If the show indeed comes back in December as Fox claims, I'll keep watching, and I think if it's given the chance to hit its stride, it could be a very good comedy.

My Name is Earl (NBC)
This right here is the best new show of the season. It's probably the one show I look forward to the most each week, and the one that's the most consistently entertaining. It might even be my favorite show on TV right now, possibly edged out only by Veronica Mars. It's amazing that it takes a gimmicky premise (each week Earl tackles one item on his list of wrongs he's committed in his life that he wants to rectify), a good amount of sentimentality and characters who could easily be white trash stereotypes and turns it all into one of the smartest, funniest and most enjoyable shows on TV. Jason Lee is perfect as Earl, and the rest of the cast is excellent as well, especially Jaime Pressly (Jaime Pressly!) as Earl's vindictive ex-wife. Although the characters are dim and uncouth, the show never condescends to them, and it manages to throw in its life lessons without seeming sappy or heavy-handed. It's the kind of show that just makes you feel happy after watching it, which sounds silly but is totally true.

Prison Break (Fox)
This was probably the most hyped new show of the season, and while it's been very successful in the ratings, it hasn't necessarily delivered on the promise of its ingenious premise. Even the pilot didn't impress me as much as I'd hoped, with dialogue and characterization straight out of any B-level action movie. It's held my interest in fits and starts, most notably during the two-episode prison riot, but at this point things have gotten so formulaic (in each episode, they encounter a new obstacle that might prevent them from breaking out, overcome it and move on) that I'm getting bored. The conspiracy plot outside the prison was never anything more than a second-rate 24 knockoff, and given that the actual break is set to occur in a few episodes (after which the show goes on hiatus, possibly all the way until May), it seems like a good time to jump off this bandwagon.

Sex, Love & Secrets (UPN)
I think I was the only critic in America who liked this show, which got cancelled after four episodes (the last of which I unfortunately missed). Sure, it was cheesy and poorly acted and kind of stupid, but it was also campy and sexy and even unpredictable at times, making it lots of fun to watch. Since I'm not watching The O.C. or Desperate Housewives anymore, I need something to give me my nighttime soap fix, and this was looking like a good candidate. Too bad that in addition to being the only critic who liked it, I may have also been the only person who watched it.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Movies opening this week

Get Rich or Die Tryin' (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Joy Bryant, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, dir. Jim Sheridan)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I actually sort of expected to like this, since Ebert & Roeper gave it a good review (not always a good indicator, but what they said sounded appealing), Sheridan is talented and the similar 8 Mile turned out to be pretty good (although somewhat overrated, I think). I was hoping this would at least be as good as 8 Mile, and possibly be better as a drama, given Sheridan's involvement. Sadly, those hopes were ill-founded, as this is a predictable and familiar gangster movie that doesn't say anything new about street life or about music, and Fiddy is a terrible actor. Oh well. It'll make a gajillion dollars anyway, as long as all the moviegoers don't get shot. Wide release

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan, dir. Shane Black)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This movie has likely secured a place on my year-end best-of list, even though it's not remotely serious or particularly thought provoking (unless those thoughts are about trying to catch obscure in-jokes). It's probably the most fun I've had at a movie this year, and it's incredibly well-crafted, and I think those are virtues that are often overlooked when people decide what the "best" movies are. This is pretty much pure entertainment, but it's got great writing and wonderful performances and it keeps your interest for its entire running time. As far as I'm concerned, that makes for a great movie. Opened limited Oct. 21; wide release this week

Zathura (Josh Hutcherson, Jonah Bobo, Dax Shepard, dir. Jon Favreau)
I didn't exactly think this would be a masterpiece, but previews and early reviews led me to believe that it would be fun and light and entertaining. Favreau definitely showed he could make a good kids movie that appeals to adults with Elf. But this was much worse than I was expecting, with only a handful of amusing moments. Most of it was heavy-handed and poorly paced, and rather than engendering suspense it just made me feel impatient. The worst part was that the two main characters, brothers aged six and ten, were incredibly unlikable to the point where I wanted to smack them around a bit. They learn lessons and all, because it's a family film, but even by the end I still sort of thought they were assholes. Wide release

Monday, November 07, 2005

Weekend viewing

Time to catch up on recent releases that passed me by.

Nine Lives (Rodrigo Garcia, 2005)
This is yet another one of those movies with a number of interlocking stories woven into one big tapestry. Actually, it's a little more formally rigorous than some of its ilk, with Garcia (who's the son of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez) telling nine stories of women's lives, each shot in a single uninterrupted take. In a way, it's like nine short films strung together, although some characters from some segments pop up in other segments. Certain aspects of the film work well - the single-take premise, which seems gimmicky at first, actually goes a long way toward putting the viewer right in the moment with the characters and creating a sense of overwhelming vitality, something that's important to Garcia's emotionally charged stories. These are all little character dramas, so the acting is important, and Robin Wright Penn and Amy Brenneman do especially outstanding work. But too many of the other players come off as wooden and stagy, and that hurts the film's verisimilitude. Likewise, the connections feel forced and unnecessary, especially when at least half of the scenes have no relation to any other scene. And the final story, with Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning having a picnic in a cemetery, is just awful. Overall, this isn't quite a successful film, although the scene with Wright Penn as a seemingly settled wife and mother-to-be who unexpectedly encounters an old lover in the grocery store is beautiful and heartbreaking, and would have made for an outstanding short on its own.

Shopgirl (Anand Tucker, 2005)
If you're interested in a wry, Steve Martin-written film about romantic travails in Los Angeles, you'd be well-advised to check out the underrated 1991 film L.A. Story, which is both funnier and more lively than this rather dour and restrained movie. I think that L.A. Story, Bowfinger and this film could form a sort of unofficial Steve Martin Los Angeles trilogy, giving you a glimpse into the way he's mythologized the city as the embodiment of romantic and creative longing. In L.A. Story, a freeway billboard guides Martin's wacky weatherman to love and fulfillment, while in Bowfinger a group of movie industry hangers-on achieve their artistic dreams via a set of improbable circumstances. Here, a shopgirl from Vermont finds both love and artistic success, and comes of age thanks to the romantic attention of an older man. In each film, L.A. is as much a character as any of the human figures; in Shopgirl, it's very nearly more interesting than the people. The story here is set up almost as a fable, and at times it works in its sort of dreamlike way. More often, though, it just meanders, and never seems to quite know what its point is. Claire Danes is wonderful in the title role, and it's a shame she doesn't get more and better parts. Given the reviews for this film, it's not about to be a stepping stone to greater things for her.

Where the Truth Lies (Atom Egoyan, 2005)
I loved Egoyan's 1997 movie The Sweet Hereafter, one of the most beautifully depressing movies I've ever seen. I really ought to go back and see some of his earlier movies, since what I've seen of his since then has been disappointing. This isn't as bad as his last film, the didactic and stilted Ararat, but it's still very uneven, thanks mostly to an unfortunately awkward performance by Alison Lohman, whom I usually think is wonderful. She was outstanding in Matchstick Men and White Oleander, so it's a shame to see her so lost in her role as driven journalist who'll do anything to get at the story of a murder cover-up that led to the dissolution of a famous comedy team. Some of the thick noir in this film works well, and there are some very steamy but tasteful sex scenes. On the whole, though, it misses the mark a little, which is too bad since it seemed to have so much potential.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

New comics 11/2

Desolation Jones #4 (Warren Ellis/J.H. Williams III, DC/Wildstorm)
I am totally lost on the overall mystery going on here, but this is another entertaining issue that's easy enough to follow on its own. Jose Villarubia adds a lot to the story with his gray/red color scheme that breaks to great effect toward the end of the issue. I sort of wish this opening arc weren't six issues long, because that combined with the bimonthly shipping schedule means the book is taking a whole year just for one story. Plus the longer it goes on the more confused I get. At the same time, I'm finding it perfectly entertaining, and the trade will probably read really well.

House of M #8 (Brian Michael Bendis/Oilvier Coipel, Marvel)
Mostly I'm just glad it's over, but I have to admit that this issue gave me a sliver of hope that Marvel will do something interesting with the reduction of mutants idea. It doesn't seem like they're just going to sweep it under the rug and put it in the background to make things like they were 30 years ago. Of course, only one major X-Man has lost powers as of this issue, and Iceman isn't even that interesting anyway. Besides, given all the weird mutations they've done with him in recent years, losing his powers is sort of a logical step for the character anyway. The one revelation that I actually didn't see coming and think has the most potential for growth is Wolverine's recovery of all his memories, which seems like a step forward for the character rather than a step back like the "no more mutants" bit. I still think this was a ridiculously long and padded story to get to a foregone conclusion, but at this point I don't absolutely hate it, so that's an improvement over the first few issues, at least.

Powers #14 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Avon Oeming, Marvel/Icon)
I'm still wondering what the stand-up comedy rants have to do with the main story, but this issue does something that Bendis, with his mostly arc-based writing, doesn't normally do: It brings a long-running subplot to head while also advancing the main story. Add to that the weird rants, and there's a lot going on in this issue, but Bendis balances it well enough that you're left at the end wondering what's going to happen to Deena, how the arc's mystery will resolve, and who those people in the comedy club are. If everything comes together next time, that'll be a very impressive feat.

Seven Soldiers: Bulleteer #1 (Grant Morrison/Yanick Paquette, DC)
DC has been sending out seemingly random first issues of these series to their publicity list. Some I've gotten, some I haven't. This one is pretty good, and if it were the first issue of an ongoing I'd definitely be picking it up again. Since it's part of the epic Seven Soldiers story, I'll probably wait to read it in trade with the rest of the pieces. Still, I like Morrison's take on superhero celebrity, and his portrayal of someone who's desperate to be validated and will do anything to become a superhero himself. Paquette's art is a little uneven, but I like his design for the main character, even if it is a little heavy on the cheesecake (that is, after all, sort of the point).

Saturday, November 05, 2005


Well, sort of. Check out an article on the Backstage website about my experience participating in the 48 Hour Film Project, written by local theater critic (and occasional film critic) Anthony Del Valle. Tony's a smart critic and, most importantly, always supportive of my work. Clearly he's got good taste.

I'm also set to sit down this coming Friday with Michael Addis and Jamie Kennedy himself to discuss the role of the critic and the function of negative reviews, for their documentary called Heckler. I've been assured it's not a prank.

And the producer of Adler Online, the Canadian radio show on which I appear each Friday, recently said I was her favorite film critic of all time. If only Roger Ebert would return my phone calls about replacing that Roeper guy.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Movies opening this week

Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Clifton Collins Jr., Catherine Keener, dir. Bennett Miller)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm always disappointed when I'm really looking forward to a movie and I really admire the people involved and find the concept really interesting, and then the movie isn't as good as I'd hoped. Especially if I also do a very nice interview with the star. This is a fine film, with a good performance by Hoffman, but it relies far too much on the quality of that performance to tell the story. The other characters essentially sit around and react to what Capote does, and only Collins ever gets a chance to do much more than that. Still, it's not a bad movie, just not quite as good as reviews would have you believe, and not as good as I was expecting. Opened limited Sep. 30; in Las Vegas this week

Jarhead (Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jamie Foxx, dir. Sam Mendes)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This is another disappointment, although I was more prepared for it to be so, and it's not as admirable or interesting as Capote. I think Mendes is trying so hard to be classy and elegant that he's made a film that's actually very timid. A lot of critics seem to think that the film's problem is not taking a political stand, but I don't think that's necessarily the case - the problem is that it doesn't take any kind of stand at all, even emotional or thematic. It's a movie that doesn't mean anything or care about anything, and that's tough to invest yourself in. Wide release

MirrorMask (Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Gina McKee, dir. Dave McKean)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This has been getting a lot of mediocre and negative reviews, and I think some people are being too harsh on it. I'm not just saying that because of the comic book connection; I really think it's a good film, if sort of predictable, and it looks amazing. It's worth going to see in a theater, too, to appreciate McKean's surreal visuals in all their overwhelming glory. Story-wise, it could lose 10 or 15 minutes, but it's still very entertaining. Opened limited Sep. 30; in Las Vegas this week

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Weekend viewing

Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
My Sissy Spacek mini-festival continues with Malick's debut film, featuring Spacek as a naive South Dakota teenager who hooks up with an older man and follows him on a killing spree. It's based on a true story, and has to be the most strangely unsentimental portrait of a serial killer I've ever seen. Martin Sheen is great as Spacek's boyfriend, who must be a psychopath thanks to all the murders he commits, but otherwise comes off as a very friendly guy and incredibly devoted boyfriend. This is the opposite of a film like Natural Born Killers, with its showy, distracting style, cynical killers and glorification of violence. Malick shoots the northern plains of the U.S. in a stark, simple (but affecting) style, and keeps everything incredibly low-key, even as the bodies mount. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this film while watching it, but the more I think about it, the more I find it interesting.