Sunday, July 31, 2005

Weekend viewing

Croupier (Mike Hodges, 1998)
I saw Hodges' second collaboration with Clive Owen, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, when it came out a couple of years ago, and was underwhelmed. It was cold and slow and no fun at all. This is much better, though, with a dark sense of humor and a slick plot, and probably the best performance I've seen from Owen. Like all good noir, it's about 90% narration, but it's coolly ironic narration, and there are at least two femme fatales. The ending confused me a bit, but otherwise this was a near-perfect thriller.

Infernal Affairs (Andy Lau & Alan Mak, 2002)
It's strange to me that this is being remade by Martin Scorsese, because it's so heavily influenced by American thrillers that a remake seems especially redundant. For all its praise and success (two sequels followed in quick succession), it's a stylish but empty movie, and it seems to me that if it were an American film it wouldn't have gotten so much attention. There is one really taut and suspenseful sequence, with a drug bust played on both sides by the gang mole and the police mole, but otherwise you never get a sense of who these characters are or what they're going through living stressful double lives. As a result, it's hard to care about all the conversions and confrontations at the end. I hope Scorsese will add some depth, but I still see no reason for this movie to be remade at all.

Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970)
This has got to be the longest, slowest heist movie I have ever seen. I realize it's considered a masterpiece, and I did enjoy the last Melville movie I saw (Bob Le Flambeur), but for long stretches of the film I was honestly bored. The central heist sequence, which doesn't come until 90 minutes into the movie, is impressively orchestrated and almost entirely dialogue-free. But overall I found this minimalist to the point of distraction, and a bit of a disappointment.

Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971)
Maybe this is an odd point of entry for Peckinpah films, since he's known mainly for his Westerns, but it's obviously got a lot in common with that genre, with the lone man required to step up and make a stand against encroaching lawlessness. One of the things I love about Michael Mann movies is the way they so thoroughly explore the idea of masculinity, and Peckinpah's obviously doing the same sort of thing in this film (and, it would appear, in most of his other work as well). At first it seems like Peckinpah has unbridled contempt for Dustin Hoffman's passive-aggressive nebbish of a character, and that only when he gives in to violence and brutality does he live up to the director's idea of manliness. But in the course of becoming a man, Hoffman's David loses everything, and ultimately Peckinpah seems to be equating the natural masculine state with ugliness and even inhumanity. I kind of prefer Mann's more layered appraoch, but damn if that siege sequence wasn't awesomely constructed.

"Creator-created"

In his column this week, Steven Grant casually tosses off a phrase that I believe he is the first to use: "creator-created." On the surface, this is a ridiculously meaningless term; aren't all comics created by their creators? Well, yes, in the sense that even characters like Batman, Superman and Spider-Man were originally thought up by the first people who wrote and drew their adventures. But the creators working on those characters today are not the ones who created them; Batman, Superman and Spider-Man comics, as well as most company-owned titles, are not creator-created. They are created today by people who are simply stewards of company property, neither the first nor presumably the last creators to work with those characters.

Generally there is an acknowledged dichotomy in comics between "creator-owned" and "company-owned" characters. Creators are generally thought to have more emotional investment in creator-owned properties, because not only did they come up with the characters and concepts, but they also own the copyrights (hence the term). On the flipside, oftentimes creators, especially those who work regularly on properties that they own, are assumed to have less of an investment, both emotional and financial, in characters they didn't create and are merely taking care of for a company that relies on those characters for things like movies, TV shows and various licensing endeavors. Of course, creators have far more freedom with their owned creations than they do with company characters. This explains, for example, why Warren Ellis's work on Ultimate Fantastic Four bored me, while I find Desolation Jones much more interesting. Ellis is a caretaker for Marvel characters so he can pay the bills, but he puts a lot more of himself into Desolation Jones, which is all his.

For me, knowing that a creator (generally a writer, but often in tandem with an artist) has that investment in a book makes me want to put my investment into it, too. I also know that it's more likely that the creative team will stick around, and that they'll have the freedom to tell the kind of stories they want without editorial interference. I know that when Brian Vaughan, say, decides that Y The Last Man is over, Vertigo isn't going to bring in some other writer to keep it going because it still sells well, or because there's a movie in development. Vaughan owns it, so he does what he wishes with it.

About half of the comics I read monthly are creator-owned. But what about the rest? Leaving aside X-Men, which is on probably its 10th or 12th writer since I started reading it, and is more a habit than anything else, most of the rest of what I read is what Grant calls creator-created. Allan Heinberg created all of the characters in Young Avengers, even if they're connected to other characters in the Marvel universe. Likewise Brian Michael Bendis for The Pulse (at least where the main character is concerned). I'm not reading Warren Ellis on Iron Man, but I will be picking up his new Marvel book Nextwave, which features obscure Marvel characters so thoroughly reinvented that he might as well have created them. Even though these books are just as fully owned by their respective companies as Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, there is that same sense of investment and control on the part of the creators as there is with creator-owned books, even if it's sort of illusory. If Marvel wanted to, they could fire Brian Vaughan from Runaways and hire someone else to take over. But it seems unlikely, because Vaughan is as inextricably linked to that book as he is to Y. I know that I and most other readers wouldn't keep buying the book if he were dumped (or Heinberg from Young Avengers, Bendis from The Pulse, etc.).

Grant lumps creator-created books in with creator-owned books as concepts that the industry has hostility toward these days, and he's mostly right. There is a resistance to new concepts across the board; in a way, it's a resistance to creation. People often focus on the idea that big companies are afraid of creators owning their characters in a financial sense, but in a way they seem just as afraid of the creators owning them in a more spiritual sense. It's most profitable for Marvel and DC if characters are much more popular than their creators, but in the case of something like Runaways, that's just not true.

Although the short-sighted view makes it seem that creator-creation is bad for comics companies, in the long term it's great. Eventually Brian Vaughan will get tired of writing Runaways, and if he gives his blessing to a new creative team, then fans like me will stick around and Marvel will have acquired another property to be shepherded along like Spider-Man and the X-Men. As a reader, I find the most valuable thing to be reading a book that the creators care about creating, that seems as exciting to create as it is to read, that isn't just a cog in a machine. Even if, when it comes down to financial reality, creator-created books are cogs in machines, the respect given by companies to new ideas and to an emotional investment in them can make all the difference.

Friday, July 29, 2005

New comics 7/27

Astro City: The Dark Age #2 (Kurt Busiek/Brent Anderson, DC/Wildstorm)
Busiek has done a really good job here inverting the sense of wonder that defines Astro City and turning it into a sense of sort of terrified awe. The world he's portraying here reminds me in many ways of the world Warren Ellis showed in the early days of The Authority, where average people are just as afraid of mysterious superpowered beings in their midst as they are reassured. It's possible that Busiek is going too far, and tainting the sort of wide-eyed reputation that Astro City has, but I think the book's mandate has always been a grounded, real-world take on superheroes, and that means taking the bad with the good.

The Pulse #10 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Lark & Stephano Gaudiano, Marvel)
As much as I have been down on this book and on House of M, this issue (a House of M crossover) should have been my least favorite one yet. But it was actually a big improvement over the terrible Secret War arc. It has what seems like a significant impact on the House of M story overall (Hawkeye deciding to go kill Magneto), so much so that I wonder if people reading House of M who don't buy this book will be missing something. Honestly this was the first House of M story that felt to me like it was going somewhere, and saying something about a specific character (in this case Hawkeye). As a Pulse story, though, it was pretty much a waste. Jessica Jones doesn't even appear in this issue, and the one Pulse character who does (Kat Farrell) is used almost exclusively as a sounding board for Bendis to move Hawkeye's story ahead. I did like the mix of Lark and Gaudiano's art, and at least Michael Gaydos is returning next issue. But while this was a decent House of M story, it was pretty much worthless as an issue of The Pulse, so my opinion still stands: If the next arc isn't a significant improvement, I'm done.

Runaways #6 (Brian K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona, Marvel)
Vaughan accomplishes a hell of a lot in the conclusion of the new volume's first arc: He adds a much-needed male member to the team; he establishes Excelsior as its own, highly interesting, entity; he puts in one hell of a twist at the end that ties the book back into its origins; and he offers a decent wrap-up to Victor's story, although to be honest I found that to be the weakest part. I really hope we see more of Excelsior, either in these pages or, even better, in their own book. And the twist at the end gives the series a nice long-term subplot for Vaughan to develop, which he's always been good at. Once again, this is the best thing that Marvel's publishing (although it's neck and neck with Young Avengers).

Silent Dragon #1 (Andy Diggle/Leinil Francis Yu, DC/Wildstorm)
I've read a lot about how great Diggle's work is on The Losers and the recent Adam Strange mini-series. I wasn't impressed with the first issue of The Losers, but this series has an intriguing presence (samurais! in the future!) and the always excellent Yu artwork, so I gave it a shot. The plot of the first issue is a little confusing, and features samurais doing pretty basic samurai things. It doesn't take quite enough advantage of its sci fi setting, but Yu's work is as always dynamic and beautiful, and there's enough potential that I'll stick with it for a bit.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Movies opening this week

Murderball (documentary, dir. Henry Alex Rubin & Dana Adam Shapiro)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Although I was disappointed in buzz documentaries Mad Hot Ballroom and March of the Penguins (which I saw a few days ago after glowing recommendations and found not much more interesting than a special on Animal Planet), Murderball kept my interest throughout. It's got strong personalities and a clear narrative thread, although it does drag in places. It was one of the bright spots at CineVegas and, along with The Aristocrats, one of the allegedly enthralling recent documentaries that lives up to its hype. Opened limited July 8; in Las Vegas this week

Sky High (Michael Angarano, Kurt Russell, Kelly Preston, dir. Mike Mitchell)
Call me crazy, but I found this to be the best superhero movie of the summer. Although I'm in the extreme minority in my disappointment with Batman Begins, I doubt I'll be alone in thinking that this movie does everything that Fantastic Four set out to do, only much better. It's funny and family-friendly, it teaches little lessons and it gets in plenty of in-jokes for superhero fans. Yes, it's a Disney movie, so it's pretty predictable and sometimes hokey, and it plays at times like a pilot for a TV series (which it may very well end up being). But even if the kids are sort of bland, the supporting cast is great, with Russell the perfect square-jawed do-gooder, plus former Kids in the Hall Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald, the great Bruce Campbell, even Cloris Leachman in a one-scene part. It doesn't surprise me at all that the duo who did the rewrite on the script are veterans of Kim Possible, one of my favorite TV guilty pleasures. Like Kim Possible, this has an allegorical take on high school, an infectious sense of fun and a way of being clever without losing its heart. At the risk of sounding like a shill, it's fun for the whole family. Wide release

Monday, July 25, 2005

Weekend viewing

Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)
This is a totally ridiculous slice of film noir gold. It's 67 minutes long and approximately 62 minutes of that is hard-boiled narration, but man is it awesome. The DVD that NetFlix sent me is made from a pretty bad print, with missing frames, random hissing on the soundtrack and serious contrast issues, but it almost makes it better, like discovering some forgotten gem hidden in an archive somewhere (I realize this is one of the most famous noir movies, but go with it). Ann Savage is hilarious and nasty as the femme fatale, and the whole thing is perfect entertainment.

My Night at Maud's (Eric Rohmer, 1969)
I have to be honest: Although I had heard of Rohmer and was aware of his place in the French New Wave movement, when my brother suggested that we watch a Rohmer movie, I didn't recognize a single title on his IMDb page. So I picked this one, which is, from what I can tell, his best-known work, and it seems like it was a good place to start. There are things about it that are very French New Wave (one character notes that he and Maud would end up making love "just to pass the time," which seems like an inherently French thing to do), yet unlike, say, early Godard, its central characters are not lowlifes and ruffians. They are, rather, intellectuals, and the whole movie is a bunch of intellectualizing. It actually reminded me a lot of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset series, albeit with a slightly haughtier tone. It started a little sluggishly, but the central set piece (the titular night) is fascinating, even if the characters spend most of the time debating a piece of philosophy by Pascal with which I am only vaguely familiar. It's billed as a "moral tale" (one in a series of six that Rohmer created), but I'm not quite sure yet what the moral was. I'll have to keep thinking on it.

Nil by Mouth (Gary Oldman, 1997)
Oldman's first (and, to date, only) directorial effort starts slow, but oh man when it gets going it's seriously intense. I sort of expected your standard "losers on drugs" movie, but in many ways it's closer to a Mike Leigh film in its unflinching portrait of working-class Londoners. It's darker and more violent than a Leigh movie, sure (there are a few intense scenes that are hard to watch), but it's got the same core family drama holding it together. Ray Winstone is absolutely outstanding and I don't know where the hell the Academy was on missing him at Oscar time. I'd love to see Oldman direct something else if it was this powerful and raw (and if I could watch it with subtitles as I did this one because I couldn't understand the thick accents).

Saturday, July 23, 2005

New comics 7/20

Astonishing X-Men #11 (Joss Whedon/John Cassaday, Marvel)
My excitement over this series has definitely waned, and the delays have certainly not helped. I remain relatively unimpressed with the plot, but Whedon does offer up a really nice scene between Kitty Pryde and Colossus, and makes good use of disparate continuity elements. Cassaday's art again looks a little rushed in parts, although his depiction of the reconstituted Sentinel rising up over Genosha is pretty damn impressive.

Cable & Deadpool #17 (Fabian Nicieza/Patrick Zircher, Marvel)
Nicieza deals with House of M in his obligatory crossover issue the only sensible way: by making fun of it. The letters page even notes that the crossover will affect the title "just as much as is necessary to increase our sales." It's actually quite impressive how he seamlessly weaves this cumbersome crossover into his ongoing storyline (about Deadpool hopping around in various alternate realities searching for Cable). It works so well that even if someone reads this as part of a trade collecting this latest arc and has never heard of House of M, they should have no trouble following the action and wouldn't even notice a change. That coupled with the very funny dialogue from the suddenly super-nice Mr. Sinister make for an excellent issue, and if the crossover really does increase sales and gets more people to pick up this underrated book, it will have all been worth it.

Ex Machina #13 (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
Vaughan takes the jury duty storyline in an interesting direction, turning it into a tense stand-off between Mitchell and an unstable fellow juror. It's maybe a little disappointing that the political part of this arc has been replaced with a thriller, but I thought the opportunities for political exploration were minimal anyway. The main plot follows the investigation into the Automaton (who has an awesome design courtesy of Harris), and brings up a few unanswered questions from previous arcs. Shaping up to be an interesting story after a slow start.

G.L.A. #4 (Dan Slott/Paul Pelletier, Marvel)
I was a little iffy on this book at first, but now that it's over I'm really sad to see it go. Slott seems like he's just getting warmed up telling stories with these characters, and he's managed in four issues to create a team that I'm really interested in. Pelletier's bright, clean art is perfect for this kind of fun, old-school superhero storytelling. This issue is funny but also has a certain amount of pathos, and I think this is the only time in the history of superhero comics that the hero has defeated the villain by tricking him into committing suicide. That's some pretty crazy stuff, and it's a shame we won't be seeing any more of it.

House of M #4 (Brian Michael Bendis/Olivier Coipel, Marvel)
How much of a sucker am I? Even though this entire series has been pretty much worthless and almost nothing of note has happened, I still picked it up first off of this week's stack of comics to read, in the vain hope that something interesting might be going on in this issue or that the story might move in an unexpected direction or that Bendis might do something to make me care about what's going on. But...no. Once again, the story moves at a snail's pace, and it's not even a very interesting story. We finally meet Layla Miller, the character that Bendis has been talking up forever, and she's an annoying little girl. If this were a movie, she'd be Dakota Fanning. What a waste. There is no sense that this story has any consequences, and Bendis isn't even giving us anything revealing about any of the characters to mask the thin plot. This is one of the emptiest crossover events I've ever read, and I read both The Infinity War and The Infinity Crusade. On the plus side, Coipel's art is still great; his spread of the Sentinels attacking the human resistance is just breathtaking. It's not enough to save this stupid series that I am stupidly wasting my money on, though.

The Surrogates #1 (Robert Venditti/Brett Weldele, Top Shelf)
This actually came out a couple of weeks ago, but my local store didn't get any until this week. It's definitely not the sort of thing I'd expect from Top Shelf - it's a sci-fi action story, a mini-series rather than an original graphic novel, and in full color. But it's gotten someone like me, who doesn't read much Top Shelf, to pick it up, so that's a success for them. Venditti has put together both an interesting world, in which everyone lives their lives through lifelike robot "surrogates," and an intriguing mystery. Weldele's somewhat abstract art, which reminds me a bit of Ben Templesmith, fits the moody, noir-ish story well. A successful experiment from Top Shelf, easily of the quality and also the subject matter I'd expect of something, say, from Vertigo.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Movies opening this week

Bad News Bears (Billy Bob Thornton, Marcia Gay Harden, Greg Kinnear, dir. Richard Linklater)
I have not seen the original Bad News Bears, which I never realized was such a cardinal sin until two of my co-workers waxed rhapsodic for an hour about how great it was. I always thought it was a dopey '70s kids' movie, but apparently it's brilliant. After seeing this new version, I may be ruined on the old one (so says my expert co-worker). This is a very, very faithful remake if what others say is true, and as such it's probably pretty pointless. On its own, it's mildly amusing and gets a lot of goodwill based on Thornton's persona, pretty much a watered-down version of his character from Bad Santa. Linklater has had such an eclectic career that it's sometimes hard to judge his films within his oeuvre, but I think this will come out as a lesser work, somewhere around The Newton Boys. He did wonders with the mainstream comedy of School of Rock, but this is just sort of limp. Wide release

The Devil's Rejects (Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe, dir. Rob Zombie)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
There's a flood of movies that I saw at CineVegas coming out this week, starting with this one. I think Zombie has a great visual style and a deep love of grindhouse and underground cinema that could turn him into the next Quentin Tarantino (seriously). I'm just not sure if doing a sequel to his first film was the best move. He's said that there won't be any more movies about the Firefly family (and given this film's ending I can't imagine how there could be), and I think whatever he does next will really set the tone for his career as a filmmaker (hopefully in a good way). Wide release

Hustle & Flow (Terrence Howard, Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning, dir. Craig Brewer)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Despite the complete predictability and hokiness of this movie, I can't help but like it. By applying that whole rags-to-riches formula to a pimp who's not always lovable, Brewer does sort of subvert the form and make you question why exactly you're rooting for DJay to succeed (and you do root for him). At the same time, it's not exactly a movie with a ton of subtext. It's about a guy achieving his lifelong dreams, and it's damned entertaining. Go with it. Wide release

The Island (Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Sean Bean, dir. Michael Bay)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This, on the other hand, is full of subtext, or at least it can be if you want it to. No doubt Bay would deny any other meaning than pure entertainment, but one of his former professors did liken him to an abstract artist, so certainly his films can be open to multiple interpretations. Some have seen this movie as a conservative screed against stem-cell research, but it didn't come off that way to me. I looked at it more as critique of the commodification of everything, including human life (ironic since Bay's films are full of commodities in the form of product placement), the logical outgrowth of our obsessions with plastic surgery and staying young. Of course, this isn't really a movie about serious issues; it's about blowing shit up. You can tell that the original script was probably a lot more interesting before it went through rewrites to add in more car chases. Not that those would have been particularly difficult rewrites; Bay has this awesome attitude toward scripting: "I literally tell the writers, 'When you're writing the script I want you - when you come to an action scene - to just put "action," and I'll fill in the blanks.'" I mean, really, how can you even pretend to take the guy seriously when this is his approach to filmmaking? For a much (much, much) better approach to some similar themes about genetic engineering, check out Andrew Niccol's criminally underappreciated Gattaca. Wide release

Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July, John Hawkes, Brandon Ratcliff, dir. Miranda July)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Man did I hate this movie. This is one of those times that I just want to throttle critics for being snowed by excessive preciousness and pointless quirks and meaningless oddities masquerading as depth. It's not as reprehensible as some of this year's critically-lauded pieces of pretentious pseudo-indie shit (The Upside of Anger, Crash), but it's still pretty worthless, and entirely undeserving of all the effusive praise it's gotten from all sorts of critical quarters. Thankfully not everyone's bowled over by July and her cutesy quirks; both N.P. Thompson and my friend Jeannette Catsoulis tear this film apart, so I figure I'm in pretty good company in disliking it. Opened limited June 17; in Las Vegas this week

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Three more takes on San Diego

I am probably bordering on San Diego overkill, but I thought these two accounts were worth noting for the different perspectives they offer: Brian Lowry in Variety talks about how, as someone who first went to the convention 30 years ago and now works in the Hollywood trades, he sees the Hollywood presence at the con both cynically money-driven and harmful to comics fans. Steven Grant in Comic Book Resources, however, says that comics fans should shut up about Hollywood taking over and appreciate how great things really are. I think it's interesting that the ostensible Hollywood guy (Lowry) is bemoaning the Hollywood takeover, while the comics guy (Grant) is celebrating it.

My own sort of conceptual take on the con, which addresses this stuff to some extent, can be found here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

San Diego wrap-up

(Yes, a day late, but there was a lot to cover. I'll also have a more conceptual take on it in the upcoming Las Vegas Weekly.)

Unlike some, I don't really have the fortitude (or the money) to spend four days at Comic-Con, so for the past two years I've only gone for Saturday, which is what I did this year as well. I've been refining my approach so that I have a pretty reliable system now for things like parking, carrying stuff (the benefits of bringing my own cardboard poster tube - grabbed from the office - are immeasurable), eating and so on. I've also switched gears a little as to what I buy at the con. This year I tried to take some of Rich Johnston's advice and not just get stuff that could easily be obtained elsewhere. I did, however, still print out my Amazon wishlist to take with me, and pick up four trade collections that I will get around to reading at some point (who knows when - I've still got stuff on the shelf that I bought last year): Brian Talbot's The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, Rich Koslowski's The King, Adrian Tomine's Sleepwalk and the first volume of the Peter David Hulk Visionaries. Note only one superhero book in there, which I think is an admirable effort to broaden my horizons.

I also only bought two old back issues that I need to complete collections of certain books: Savage Dragon #27 (which finally fills in all the holes in my SD run) and New Warriors #63, which puts me only nine issues away from completing NW, after which I'll probably read the whole run over. It's a series that I read in bits and pieces when it first came out, but only later got interested in the idea (I have a soft spot for C-list early '90s Marvel heroes), and I picked up the bulk of the run at a ten-cent sale at my local store a few years back. I've been filling it in piecemeal since then because none of it's collected and I want to read it. I toyed briefly with trying to submit a New Warriors proposal for Marvel's ill-fated Epic initiative a while ago (as did, well, pretty much every Marvel fan my age), but now I just want to be able to read it all and enjoy, which has proven to be quite the chore. I found a copy of issue 46 (another one I need) for $15, which is ridiculous considering how not in demand later issues of the series are, and the guy told me it was all based on the condition. I'm a reader, not a collector, and since I'd probably end up devaluing the thing by reading it, I didn't bother. I can't imagine paying $15 for an individual issue of anything.

So other than that stuff, I tried to be a little adventurous. I don't carry a sketchbook and I've never understood the appeal of autographs (plus I hate talking to people), so I didn't go around meeting creators. I also can't really afford to buy art prints, but what I really do like, that I started doing last year, is getting T-shirts with art. Not advertising specific comics, just with pieces of art. I got one from the brilliant Tara McPherson, who did covers for Vertigo's lame series The Witching (her covers were the only non-lame element) and told me that she has some interior sequential stuff in the works, which would be very welcome. I think I probably made a total fool of myself while talking to her. I also met artist Ragnar (just the one name, thanks) and his wife, who are both Las Vegas natives and current Orange County residents. I did my best to sell them on the burgeoning Vegas arts scene, and bought a shirt with one of Ragnar's retro-modern drawings on it. And the last one I picked up was by artist Andrew Bawidamann, who does retro pin-up art with thick lines and thick curves, both of which I approve of.

I did get suckered in by one cool T-shirt that I sort of regret. The comic strip Unshelved had a Fight Club parody shirt called "Book Club" that I thought was amusing, and offered the shirt plus a collection of their strip for 20 bucks. I wavered and ultimately bought it, and while I still find the shirt amusing, the strip, about people working in a library, is about on par for a mediocre web comic. Oh well. Live and learn.

The other thing I tried to do this year was attend more panels, but unfortunately I seem cursed to always miss out on the panels I'd most like to see. Honestly none of Saturday's panels really grabbed me, and of the three I ended up attending, I walked out of all of them. The first was a sort of "tips on writing" talk by Mark Verheiden, writer of Superman and a producer on Battlestar Galactica. I've never read (or seen) any of his work, but a discussion of the mechanics and nuances of writing seemed like a good prospect. Unfortunately it was just a bunch of inanities like "be passionate about your work" (or at least it was for the 10 minutes I was there). I went to a panel theoretically about tips on breaking into comics that was more just a random (but occasionally amusing) conversation among the oddly chosen panelists. The one panel that sort of excited me was for Joss Whedon's upcoming Serenity movie, based on his Firefly TV show. I love Joss Whedon, and although I wasn't always crazy about Firefly, I am eagerly awaiting Serenity. I even braved waiting in line for half an hour with obsessed Whedon fans and sitting in the 6500-seat Hall H, which was bigger than most places I go to see concerts in Vegas. The description promised clips, but instead it was just a Q&A session with Whedon and the cast (so basically just Whedon). Once again, I learned the same lesson I learned at CineVegas: Q&As with self-absorbed geeks of any kind are seriously painful. I spent probably twice as much time in line as I did enduring the torture of the panel.

Slightly better was the nighttime screening of the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore, by Dez Vylenz. It was cool to hear Moore, who's pretty stingy about giving interviews, talk extensively about his work, but the film pretty quickly veered away from Moore's work into his somewhat questionable religious and philosophical beliefs, all about ancient magick and tarot and the Kabbalah and such. It was a great illustration of the problems with later issues of Promethea. Still, it was way better than the Whedon panel.

Lastly, I grabbed a few issues of newer comics that I had been meaning to pick up or that just caught my eye:

Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril #6 (Joshua Dysart/Sal Velluto, Penny Farthing Press)
The final issue of the series was on sale early and at a discount, so I snatched it up. While I still like the retro feel and as always love Velluto's art, my complaints from the recent issues remain: The story was dragged out too much, and became way too serious. I like that Dysart tries to tackle racial issues in a sort of subtle way, but this book seems to be confused as to whether it's a serious allegory, a fun adventure story, a tribute to old superhero comics or a parody of them. I liked it well enough, but I'm not sure that I'd pick up another series. (I realize the image is of issue five, but I can't for the life of me find one of issue six. All the covers pretty much look the same anyway.)

Living in Infamy #1 (Benjamin Raab & Deric A. Hughes/Greg Kirkpatrick, Ludovico Technique)
Raab's presence as co-writer, a cover by John Cassaday and an intriguing premise (super-villains in witness protection) drove me to give this a chance. It's not bad, but it's not great; the tone is a little off, and Kirkpatrick's interior art is not nearly up to the standards set by Cassaday's cover. It tries to be both quirky (as set up by the great cover image) and serious, and the balance doesn't generally work. Still, Ludovico, a company that previously has done extra features for DVDs, clearly has some money to throw around, and this has professional production values and full color. It's a decent start. Apparently it's only available now in one shop in L.A., but should be distributed soon. Read more about it here.

The Middle Man #1 (Javier Grillo-Marxuach/Les McLaine, Viper)
I was surprised that my local store didn't have copies of this last week, since Grillo-Marxuach is a writer for Lost and Viper had a hit indie book with Dead@17. I'll have to add it to my pull list to get the rest of the mini-series, since this is an excellent debut. The plot is nothing special, but the dialogue is sharp and funny, the main character is interesting, and McLaine's art, which strikes me almost as an indie version of J. Scott Campbell, is lots of fun. Overall a very entertaining read and well worth looking out for.

Tabloia #575-576 (Chris Wisnia, Salt Peter Press)
Wisnia sent me the first three issues of his anthology series (despite the odd numbering, these are actually issues four and five) for review, and I liked his main feature, a sort of slow-burn horror story called The Lump. This wraps up The Lump, as well as features more of the back-ups starring Dick Hammer: Conservative Republican Private Investigator, Dr. DeBunko and Doris Danger. The Lump concludes in a satisfying if oblique fashion, and I think it'll probably read well in one sitting. Wisnia told me that orders were too slim to warrant publishing more issues, but he's looking into putting out a collection of The Lump, which I think would do really well somewhere like Oni (who published Wisnia's collaboration with Sam Keith, Ojo) and a collection of the monster stories, which I wasn't that crazy about but fans of old Kirby monster comics seem to like. More info available here.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Movies opening this week

A little late because of my trip to San Diego (more on that tomorrow). Also I completely forgot.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Deep Roy, dir. Tim Burton)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
For all of his protestations about how this was going to be closer to the book by Roald Dahl, Burton throws in a useless backstory for Willy Wonka and a lame ending as his most significant contributions to this new film version. Yes, it looks great and has that typical Burton flair, but I found it totally pointless (while also totally entertaining). It's a shame that Burton has adamently disavowed interest in pursuing a film version of the book's sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. At least that would be something new, and a great vehicle for Burton's talent, I think. Really, I would have rather seen him tackle any of the number of other Dahl books that have yet to be adapted for the screen, or, better yet, actually come up with something original. I guess I'll just have to hold out for Corpse Bride. (Far more interesting than the film is this recent lengthy New Yorker take on Dahl's work and its unique appeal.) Wide release

Heights (Elizabeth Banks, Glenn Close, James Marsden, Jesse Bradford, dir. Chris Terrio)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Based on a play by fellow Amherst graduate Amy Fox, so that makes me proud. If you have a low tolerance for talky movies about self-absorbed rich people, you probably won't like this, but I found enough meat on the bones in the visual style and the acting to make it an interesting enough diversion. Opened limited June 17; in Las Vegas this week

Friday, July 15, 2005

Emmy nominations

The television Academy is even more clueless about quality than the motion picture Academy, so it doesn't necessarily bother me to see overrated, mediocre stuff (Desperate Housewives) or total crap (Will & Grace) get tons of nominations. It's pretty much what I expect. At the same time, I always foolishly hold on to a sliver of hope that some good stuff will get its due, probably fueled by the recent nominations and wins for Arrested Development (which I don't even think is that great but is at least intelligent and critically acclaimed). But, for example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer never got any major nominations, nor did Freaks and Geeks, nor Felicity, etc. So I shouldn't have been hoping to see Veronica Mars plastered all over this year's nominations, but I sort of was, thinking in vain that actual consistent quality (rather than hype backed up by quickly declining quality) might be recognized. But no, it's the same old tired names and faces, for the most part, although I was pleased to see Lost do as well as it did. Do we need to encourage the already ridiculously self-congratulatory cast and crew of Desperate Housewives any more? No. Do we need to pretend that The West Wing is anything other than a shadow of its former self? No. Do we need to reward the genial but unadventurous Everybody Loves Raymond one last time? Well, okay, I guess I can let that one slide.

Some more random thoughts, both positive and negative:

- I like seeing Scrubs acknowledged, even though I don't usually watch it. It's clever and smart, like Arrested Development, but isn't smarmy or self-consciously hip, and appears to have actual characters.

- It's strange to see The 4400 nominated in the mini-series category, but probably lucky, since it'd never have a chance in the regular drama series category. Not that I think it deserves one; it's a guilty pleasure at best, but at least its appearance offers a little variety.

- As much as I have been down on Rescue Me recently, it completely deserved more than technical nominations. It's at least better than 24, which has been treading water for two seasons now.

- Boston Legal got exactly the nominations it deserved - it's a silly show, but Spader and Shatner are great, and I would be really happy to see Shatner win.

- The Lead Actress in a Comedy category is one of the most pathetic things I've ever seen: three Desperate Housewives, bland Patricia Heaton from Raymond, and Jane Kaczmarek, playing one of the most abrasive characters on one of the absolute worst shows (Malcolm in the Middle) ever to get critical acclaim and a lengthy run. Clearly there are no good lead comedic roles for women on TV.

- Almost as pathetic: the Guest Actor in a Comedy category, with four big names who showed up on Will & Grace and played "against type" as gay men. I'm sure of it, even though I didn't see any of the episodes.

- Two nominations for Desperate Housewives in the Guest Actress in a Comedy category, and neither is for Harriet Sansom Harris? What the hell?

Unlike for the Oscars, I don't have the sad compulsion to watch the Emmys, so I'll probably just tune into bits and pieces of it and then bitch about the winners the next day. It's the critic's prerogative.

[Full list of nominees here.]

Thursday, July 14, 2005

New comics 7/13

Desolation Jones #2 (Warren Ellis/J.H. Williams III, DC/Wildstorm)
Only the second issue and I'm already getting confused by the twisty plot. The bimonthly schedule does not help with recall, either. At least it's not yet as bad as Planetary; I do have a general recollection of what happened in the last issue. Ellis seems to be doing a sort of Big Sleep homage while populating the story with typically Ellis-esque characters. This probably means that the plot will be so convoluted that I wouldn't be able to follow it even if I read all the issues in one sitting. I like the characters, though, who are not so typically Ellis that they don't have their own personalities, and Ellis is establishing some nice pathos for his lead, who is much more subdued than, say, Spider Jerusalem (still the most Ellis of all Ellis characters). Williams' art, with colors by Jose Villarubia, is always wonderful, and he's definitely doing something different from his Promethea work while retaining his unique style.

Fables #39 (Bill Willingham/Lan Medina, DC/Vertigo)
Willingham takes a short break from the ongoing "Homelands" story to check in with the characters back in Fabletown, and it sets a few things in motion but feels like treading water in some ways. Medina's art is more the sketchy, rushed-looking work he's recently done on District X, rather than the more detailed work he did on the early days of this title (when he was inked by Steve Leialoha). Not a bad issue, but I'm eager to get back to the main story (and Mark Buckingham's art).

Gravity #2 (Sean McKeever/Mike Norton, Marvel)
I wasn't quite as gleefully entertained with this issue as I was with the last one, maybe because the surprise of how good it is had worn off. It's still really good, though, a sweet, funny, well-written superhero story that again reminds me of Astro City but in the Marvel universe. McKeever makes nice little continuity nods but keeps everything completely accessible. He's building an interesting supporting cast, and I really hope that there is some way for this to continue as an ongoing series, or at least to see Gravity show up somewhere else (perhaps as part of a revamped New Warriors?).

New Warriors #2 (Zeb Wells/Skottie Young, Marvel)
Once again, I wonder why so many longtime Warriors fans don't like this series. This is even better than the first issue, with an entertaining and goofy done-in-one story (featuring that surefire comics villain, talking monkeys), some advancing subplots that build on the team's history, and fun dialogue with kinetic artwork. The reality TV gimmick wouldn't sustain an ongoing series, but as a mini (or a lead-in to something more permanent), it makes perfect sense for the Warriors. If Fabian Nicieza had done an arc like this in the old Warriors series, people would have loved it. Those people should be giving this book a shot.

Also out this week: Mnemovore #4, which was the latest victim of my comic shop's shipping problems, and The Middleman #1, written by Lost writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach. I'll probably pick that one up at the San Diego Comic-Con, which is where I'll be this weekend (look for a wrap-up sometime on Monday, as well as musings in my new pop culture column for Las Vegas Weekly).

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Weekend viewing

All French movie edition!

Look at Me (Agn├Ęs Jaoui, 2004)
This has been sitting by my TV for probably a couple of months, along with a bunch of other random indie movie screeners I brought home from work with the intention of watching eventually. But reviews, particularly Liz Penn's, spurred me to finally pop this in, and while I'm not sure it's a "juicebomb," as Penn (aka Dana Stevens) calls it, it is a nicely entertaining film that flirts with a number of cliches and doesn't give in to any of them. Ultimately, it's a another ensemble drama about self-absorbed rich people, but Jaoui has a good eye for what makes artistic people tick, and her co-writer Jean-Pierre Bacri gives a great performance as an arrogant writer who is a complete prick to everyone around him, yet still manages to remain somewhat likable.

Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999)
I despair for whoever is unlucky enough to be having sex with Catherine Breillat. She has the coldest, most brutal view of sex I think I have ever seen in cinema, and this movie is one long attack on both sex and romantic love. I thought Fat Girl, the only other Breillat movie I've seen, was flawed but ultimately fascinating, because it explored genuine characters that I could feel for. This is just ugly and repulsive, and I'm not talking about the sexual explicitness. A quick glance at IMDb reveals that pretty much every one of Breillat's movies tackles the same subject (the bleakness of sexual relations), and I just don't think I have the tolerance to take any more of it.

The Widow of St. Pierre (Patrice Leconte, 2000)
I became totally taken with Leconte after seeing his last two movies, The Man on the Train and Intimate Strangers. I especially loved Intimate Strangers, which was one of my favorite films of last year. This is, in certain ways, very different from those films, in that it's a period piece based on a true story and has a clear political agenda, but it also deals with what is clearly Leconte's favorite theme: Two utterly different people coming together under bizarre circumstances and connecting in an intimate but non-sexual way. Beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, especially by Juliette Binoche, this is a great film with an impossibly heartbreaking ending, and it makes me disappointed that only one of Leconte's other movies (Ridicule) is currently available on NetFlix. It's in my queue, of course.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Summer TV update

The 4400 (USA, Sundays, 9 p.m.)
This is exactly the kind of show that I wouldn't have the patience for during the regular season, but over the summer it's just good enough to keep me coming back. Last year's debut season told a fairly complete story in six episodes, so this season feels at times like the writers just unraveling threads with no clue as to where they're going to go. This week's episode hit a stride in several ways, though, with almost all of the primary characters actually present at the same event for the first time this season, and Richard and Lily's overlong on-the-run storyline finally in the past. I like that they have opened up a whole can of worms with evil baby Isabelle, and that there's a more intricate ongoing plot than just the 4400-of-the-week. A lot of the dialogue is still pretty stiff (along with the acting), and the show is far from subtle, but there's at least one exciting thing each week that makes me interested in coming back for more. Plus I still miss The X-Files.

The Closer (TNT, Mondays, 9 p.m.)
This has fast become my favorite show of the summer, and one of my favorite shows on television, period. I normally have no interest in police procedurals, but this has far more going on than crime-of-the-week stories. Honestly, the cases are not all that fascinating - I mean, they're interesting enough to hold my attention, but I doubt they're breaking any new ground when it comes to TV cop shows. What I love on this show is the characterization and dialogue, especially from Kyra Sedgwick and the great JK Simmons. There are so many little moments between Brenda and her co-workers that so perfectly bring out who they are that I really couldn't care less what criminal they are chasing this week or whether they'll catch him. It's possible the police stuff will eventually drive me away, but as long as we keep learning a little bit about these people every week, I have a feeling I won't ever get bored.

Rescue Me (FX, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.)
Unlike so many rapturous TV critics, I was a little lukewarm on this show last season. It has a lot of things going for it, but over the course of the summer I got incredibly tired of watching a group of reprehensible people doing awful things. There is not a single character on this show that I remotely like or care to see do well. So far this season has continued to be unpleasant, with the added problem that the humor is barely there anymore, and a lot of the plotlines are horribly cliched. The main redeeming factor last season was the show's unpredictability, but now we've got a stalker, a guy addicted to pain pills and a romance between co-workers, and so for they're going exactly where you'd expect. Once the grittiness (aka swear words and sex) becomes routine, there's a lot less here than some people seem to think. On the other hand, I'm still watching because there is a certain interesting truth to the characters, no matter how terrible they are as people. The writers can't write women for shit, and this is a horribly misogynistic show under the guise of "that's just how people talk," but as an exploration of the basest and most repulsive forms of male bonding, it still has a strange appeal.

New comics 7/7

House of M #3 (Brian Michael Bendis/Olivier Coipel, Marvel)
This is the issue that was going to "crack the Internet right in half"? Because Hawkeye shows up at the end? Man, how stupid is that? Not necessarily that Hawkeye shows up, because this is an alternate universe, and characters like Gwen Stacy who are dead and will, presumably, remain dead when things go back to normal, have already shown up, but that Bendis and Joe Quesada really thought this would drive fandom so crazy that it would metaphorically crack the Internet in two. I mean, the arrogance is just ridiculous. Either this is just a temporary resurrection of the character, in which case it's a needless baiting of fans, or it's a more permanent return, in which case it really cheapens the death that Bendis wrote only a few months ago. I didn't read Avengers Disassembled, so I can't say whether or not Hawkeye's death was a good story, but if Bendis has any conviction at all in what he's writing, he'd leave Hawkeye alone. That moment (and it really is just a moment) aside, this is another mediocre issue of a mediocre series that continues to be completely unexceptional. It's a decent alternate reality story with some nice art, but it doesn't make a case for its alleged overwhelming importance, and it's paced so slowly that it loses all sense of urgency.

Ocean #6 (Warren Ellis/Chris Sprouse, DC/Wildstorm)
Well, that was anticlimactic. After an extra-long wait, this finale is just confusing. There's a bunch of fighting, which is somewhat interesting, and then a bunch of stuff explodes and Ellis wastes like four pages with giant panels that show, um, stuff exploding. And then everything is somehow fine. I don't know. There was this whole build-up to how the creatures in the ocean were the savage ancestors of humanity, and then they don't even do anything. I feel like this weak ending syndrome has plagued many of Ellis' recent mini-series; they often start strongly and then peter out to nothing. This in particular was a big disappointment.

Y the Last Man #35 (Brian K. Vaughan/Goran Sudzuka, DC/Vertigo)
Vaughan has really been piling on the pathos for poor Yorick in recent issues, and in this one the supporting characters actually have to ensure him that not every woman he comes in contact with dies by naming specific characters who are still alive. The high seas story ends in a bloody fashion, and we get a potentially interesting new supporting cast member. It looks like next issue will bring back the Israeli commandos, which would be more exciting if I had a better recollection of what they did the last time they showed up.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Movies opening this week

Dark Water (Jennifer Connelly, Ariel Gade, John C. Reilly, dir. Walter Salles)
Ultimately, this J-horror remake (based on a film by Ringu director Hideo Nakata) does the same thing that all the other ones have done: It takes a creepy little girl who died a tragic death and puts her in a cold urban setting (depicted with washed-out colors) to terrorize a young woman. It's less obtuse than The Ring or The Grudge, but having a more concrete ending doesn't necessarily make for a better movie. In between the genre conventions, though, there are some pretty interesting subtextual things going on here. This is perhaps the first horror movie about the failure of modern social services. Connelly's single mother is in a bitter custody dispute with her husband in which she's not at all helped by the mediators, she has to get a crappy job so she can have health insurance, she moves into a run-down building with bad plumbing because that's all she can afford, the building owner and her lawyer both lie to her to avoid helping her, and the villain of the movie is a leak, of all things.

Salles builds the story very slowly and mostly on atmosphere in the first half, and while people who are just looking for quick jolts might be bored, there's an interesting portrayal of urban isolation and the indifference of the city to people's suffering that really comes through strongly. It kind of peters out after a while, though, and while Connelly is excellent as always, and totally sells the fragility of a single mother trying to make life better for her child, the horror just doesn't work and the J-horror cliches are too much by the time the movie is over. Wide release

Fantastic Four (Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans, Julian McMahon, dir. Tim Story)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I had such low expectations for this movie that merely by not being the worst superhero movie ever it managed to pleasantly surprise me. (Check out Walter Chaw and my friend and colleague Jeannette Catsoulis for some excellently savage reviews.) Still, I'd hesitate to call it good, and turning out mediocre movies that are not as bad as they could have been is not exactly the best way for Marvel to continue its movie success. I despair for Ghost Rider. Wide release

Saving Face (Michelle Krusiec, Joan Chen, Lynn Chen, dir. Alice Wu)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It's too bad that gay cinema (and, to a lesser degree, ethnic cinema) hasn't evolved to the point at which every movie about gay people (or, say, Asian-Americans) isn't expected to make a definitive statement about the culture. The best place for movies about gay people or ethnic minorities will be when they are just as varied, in quality and subject matter, as movies about straight white people. All of which is to say, this is a cute and amusing little movie, but it certainly doesn't say all there is to say about Asian-American lesbians. Not that it should have to. Opened limited May 27; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, July 04, 2005

Weekend viewing

Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987)
Given how much I hated Spanglish, I guess it's a little odd that I'd want to see this. But I didn't hate As Good as It Gets (although I kind of worry that I might in hindsight if I ever saw it again), and I guess I wanted to prove to myself that Brooks doesn't just make smug movies about white liberal guilt. This is, in ways, a smug movie about white liberal guilt, but it's not nearly as condescending as Spanglish, and the expression of liberal guilt is filtered through a prism (the world of TV news) that Brooks seems to know more about. Ultimately, for all its flirtations with dealing with the changing landscape of TV news, this is a movie about a love triangle, and that's where Brooks does his best work. He's helped by great performances from Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks, and a nice balancing act by William Hurt, making his character emblematic of the problems in TV journalism while not turning him into a total asshole. I was sort of surprised to see that this had been nominated for so many Oscars, since it's a fairly safe romantic drama (although the ending gets points for defying expectations), but I guess that's the kind of thing that Academy members, then as now, really like.

The Rapture (Michael Tolkin, 1991)
This is an allegedly underrated gem that I had never heard of until its relatively recent DVD release, when I saw it praised in several places. It's got Mimi Rogers in a great performance as a hedonistic telephone operator who finds Jesus and awaits the titular spiritual event. Also David Duchovny in an awesome mullet, for whatever that's worth. Very bizarre mix of explicit sex scenes and ruminations on religion, with strange pacing and an ambivalent message. It's striking to see a film with recognizable stars and good production values that takes on religion so directly and so ambitiously, not preaching evangelism or atheism, just exploring ideas. I'm still not quite sure if it was a good movie, but it gave me a lot to think about, and approached the subject matter in a way I doubt a movie at its level would be able to today.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)
After seeing Closer and reading all about Nichols' earlier, better dramas of sexual politics, I added both this and Carnal Knowledge to my NetFlix queue. Like Closer, this is a movie about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things, although it does have more genuine character development and narrative urgency than Closer did. Still, I found a lot of it overwrought and so much of the dialogue just consists of talking in circles. By the end I found myself just exhausted, and not in a good way, although the performances are all excellent. Maybe it's the stage origins, but, like Closer, this struck me as a better acting exercise than a movie.

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart, 1971)
I'm sure I've seen this movie (or various snippets of it on TV) a dozen times, but I wanted to refresh my memory before seeing the remake, even though Tim Burton stridently denies that his movie is a remake. It's interesting that this was neither a critical or commercial hit when it was first released. I can see how Roald Dahl might not have loved the changes from his book, and some of the songs are pretty unmemorable, but there's a lot of fun excitement for kids, and the underlying creepiness for adults. Everyone knows how creepy Wonka is (the scene in the office with everything cut in half always freaked me out the most as a kid), but what struck me more watching this again is how much Wonka is a dick. I mean, he jerks Charlie around the whole time, tricks him, yells at him, and then expects him to take over the whole weird candy factory with all its secret passages and Oompa Loompas and all? Kind of presumptuous, I think.