Sunday, October 28, 2007

The horrors of moviegoing

As someone who sees movies in theaters an average of two or three times a week, I am always encouraging people to experience films on a big screen, and trying to make arguments against those who can only think of the negative, inconvenient aspects of going to movie theaters. But last week I was sort of inclined to agree with them after the experiences I had. I went to three screenings, all of which were frustrating in some way.

They sort of build from minor to major: At the first screening of the week, I was stuck sitting in front of a group of very talkative people, the sort who feel the need to narrate the entire film and ask each other questions about what's going on. This was annoying, and made it hard to concentrate on the film, but was easily solved. The theater was not especially crowded, and my friends and I simply moved to the other end of the row. Problems like this don't bother me much, although if you rarely go to the movies and end up with an experience like this every time, I can understand how it might not be worth the hassle.

The second screening of the week presented a problem that had nothing to do with the people in the theater. About halfway through the movie, probably when a reel changed, the projector hit a glitch and the picture ended up being sized wrong. One of the advantages of going to early screenings is that there is almost always a representative from the studio there who will get problems taken care of quickly. And that was the case here - the picture was fixed within about two minutes, and the rest of the movie proceeded without any problems. But what happened during that time was one thing that for some reason bothers me more than any other technical problem (sound issues, picture being out of focus or dark, etc.) that you can encounter at a movie theater. Because the screen size was wrong, you could see too much of the picture, and one scene unfolded with the boom mic clearly in view.

I'm not sure why exactly this bothers me so much - it's not as if you couldn't see what was happening, or were missing any of the actual content. But something about that mic being visible takes me so completely and violently out of the viewing experience that I find it nearly impossible to pay attention to what's going on. Naturally, the audience laughed as soon as they saw it, and I think a lot of times people assume that it's a mistake on the part of the filmmakers, which of course it isn't. Seeing that evidence of the filmmaking process is an immediate reminder that what you're watching isn't real, that these aren't actual people interacting but rather actors reading lines. Obviously I know that intellectually, but seeing it right in front of my face completely jars my suspension of disbelief, and makes me really upset. It's a sort of visceral reaction that I can't entirely explain, and other people seem less concerned about. I once went to a press-only screening of Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda where this went on the entire time, and there was no studio rep there to get it fixed. After the screening, I seemed to be the only one really bothered by it. I don't think I'd be able to sit through a whole movie like that again.

The last thing that happened during the week was by far the worst, because it wasn't easily solved and was incredibly distracting. My sister was the studio rep working this particular screening, and I was sitting next to her along with a friend of mine and my mom. A family with a baby came in just before the movie started and sat right behind us. Now, I think it's unbelievably rude and stupid to bring your baby to an R-rated adult drama, but at least if people know to take their kid outside if it makes noise I suppose I can tolerate it. Not long after the movie began, the baby started getting a little noisy, although not crying or being too loud. My sister turned around and told the parents that if their baby started crying or making too much noise, they'd have to take it outside for it to calm down. This is a fairly standard thing, and she wasn't even asking them to do it right away, just if the baby made more noise.

Immediately the father got enraged, saying very loudly that he was not going to take his baby outside no matter what, and that babies make noise and thus everyone would just have to deal with it. Since the studios pay to rent out the theaters for these screenings, the reps have the discretion to ask people to leave, which my sister immediately did. Again, the man loudly berated her, saying she was being rude and that he would not leave and his baby would make as much noise as it wanted. At this point, my sister got up and went to get hotel security (one of the advantages of movie theaters in casinos).

When she returned with two big, imposing security guards, the man still refused to leave, again protesting very loudly, saying it was his right to be in the theater and for his baby to make noise. Finally the guards persuaded him to go outside so they could "explain" why he had to leave. Obviously once he left they were never going to allow him back in, and after a few minutes the rest of his family must have realized this. They got up noisily to leave, and as they did their older daughter poured her entire cup of water on my sister. She immediately got up and followed them out, and apparently as she did so the daughter also struck her with the baby's diaper bag. These are stupid, petty things, of course, and when asked by security if she wanted to press charges, my sister wisely declined. But they point to such a weird sense of entitlement, that people feel they can come into a public space, disrupt everyone else's experience and then lash out when they are asked to leave. It truly amazes me.

I managed to concentrate back on the film after that, but it took a while, and I did feel like I (and the other people around me) had been cheated out of the experience we were there to have. If I had paid, I might have asked for my money back. At the same time, I don't let situations like this put me off going to the movies; the following week, I went to three more screenings without any problems. But when I got a screener in the mail the next day of that last movie, I did at least for a minute wish that I had just stayed home.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Movies opening this week

Dan in Real Life (Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, dir. Peter Hedges)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Even the negative reviews of this have been largely of the "it's stupid but harmless" variety, but I found it pretty much intolerable. I was one of the few to hate Hedges' directorial debut, Pieces of April, but at least the absence of pseudo-indie cred seems to have made people aware of just how pedestrian and sappy his writing is, and how devoid of real feeling. If this were a dumb and/or vulgar comedy, you could forgive a lot of the contrivances because you'd be focused on the jokes, but it's so convinced of its own meaningfulness and emotional weight that all you can do is be annoyed. It's smug and fake and stupidly predictable, and by the end all I wanted was for every single character to die a horrible, painful death. Wide release

The Darjeeling Limited (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston, dir. Wes Anderson)
I am not at all a fan of Wes Anderson, so I went into this movie with low expectations and found parts of it enjoyable. The two people I went with, Anderson fans both, had completely opposite reactions: One hated it, while the other thought it was good, and an improvement over Anderson's last film. I agree with that last point - it does feel more human than The Life Aquatic, and is sort of amusing in its first half, before the three brothers get kicked off the titular train in the middle of India. The jarring shift to heavy drama that proceeds doesn't work at all, and all of Anderson's increasingly irritating quirks are on full display. He seems to pay more attention to the color and placement of furniture than to the emotional arc of his characters, and the Indian setting merely affords him the chance to art-direct the background characters like they were sofas. The composition is meticulous and airless, with plenty of long tracking shots across overly posed tableaux. It's like an entire movie in air quotes, but having given up on expecting anything else from Anderson, I actually didn't hate it. Opened limited Sept. 29; wide release this week

Lars and the Real Girl (Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson, Kelli Garner, dir. Craig Gillespie)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I am getting really sick of Ryan Gosling and his Method twitchiness. He was good in Half Nelson, if perhaps overpraised, and since then he's gotten more and more mannered. He was really distracting in Fracture, a slick movie that just needed a straightforward performance, and here he's all weirdness and tics for a character who is, yes, mentally disturbed, but also meant to be sweet and caring. Although this movie isn't terrible, the premise was so flawed and executed with such seriousness that I couldn't buy into it. At least it probably won't get Gosling another Oscar nomination. Opened limited Oct. 12; in Las Vegas this week

Friday, October 19, 2007

Movies opening this week

30 Days of Night (Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster, dir. David Slade)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I have to admit that I have really come to appreciate Josh Hartnett. He's got a limited range, but he's like an old-school contract player in his ability to embody these upstanding square-jawed heroes. It worked well for him in The Black Dahlia, and it works well for him here. A number of reviewers have compared this film to High Noon, and while Hartnett is no Gary Cooper, he does convey that same sense of moral righteousness. The movie as a whole is a little padded, but reading through the graphic novel again before seeing the film I realized how rushed the original story was, so some fleshing-out is warranted. Slade makes a few odd choices - the vampires speaking in their own nonsense language is sort of pointless - but overall does justice to the source material, and the amazing overhead tracking shot of the destruction of the town almost makes the whole movie worth seeing just on its own. Wide release

Gone Baby Gone (Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris, Amy Ryan, Morgan Freeman, dir. Ben Affleck)
I don't generally go for Oscar punditry, but I'll predict right now that if nothing else this movie will get a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Amy Ryan. She's fantastic as the horrible mother of a kidnapped girl in this generally excellent movie, which does a better job of evoking working-class Boston than the last Dennis Lehane adaptation, Mystic River, did. The first hour of this movie is practically flawless, dark and suspenseful and heartbreaking, but then the plot takes a turn and the twists start piling up and the film loses its way a bit. The actors keep it together, though, and the bleak ending ties things together nicely. Affleck has great directorial instincts, aside from a tendency to overuse sweeping helicopter shots, and this is a very promising debut. Wide release

Into the Wild (Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, dir. Sean Penn)
I read Jon Krakauer's book many years ago, and don't remember much about it, but it definitely held my interest better than Penn's adaptation, which has some nice moments but doesn't really add up to much. It looks wonderful - it's a great travelogue, but the canonization of the main character, who I thought was a pretentious ass, annoyed me, and for all the narration and ponderous dialogue, I didn't think it was all that insightful. I think since the book was more of an investigative-reporting piece, it didn't matter that you didn't really understand Chris McCandless - the idea was trying to piece together what happened and what he might have been thinking isolating himself in the wilderness. The movie loses that investigative tone and just says, "Hey, isn't this guy cool?" for two and a half hours. I did enjoy a lot of it, but overall it sort of left me cold. Opened limited Sept. 21; in Las Vegas this week

Things We Lost in the Fire (Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro, David Duchovny, Alison Lohman, dir. Susanne Bier)
This is a really blatant Oscar bid for Berry and Del Toro, but it's so plodding and obvious that their overwrought emotional scenes just come off as one more prescribed element to tick off the checklist. All of the big, uplifting breakthroughs are telegraphed in glaring ways, and Berry's portrayal of grief and Del Toro's portrayal of drug addiction both feel rote and detached despite their intensity. Bier has a fondness for distracting extreme close-ups and jump cuts that don't add anything to the plot or tone, but their self-conscious artiness is about the only thing separating this from a Hallmark Hall of Fame production. Wide release

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

See me, hear me, feel me

Okay, well maybe not feel me, but if you are in Vegas and you want to see me in person and hear me talk about movies, I'll be on a panel as part of NeonFest, October 21 at 11 a.m. at the Las Palmas restaurant inside the Commercial Center. Along with Las Vegas CityLife A&E Editor Mike Prevatt, Judy Thorburn of the Flick Chicks and UNLV film professor David Schmoeller, I'll be talking about gay cinema and its relation to Hollywood. Admission is $20, but it does include a meal.

You can hear me free of charge every Friday now on Xtreme Disorder, on Vegas radio station Xtreme Radio 107.5-FM (or listen on their website). I'm on usually a little after 6 p.m. Pacific time, right after the "Metallica Moment" (extreme!).

Monday, October 15, 2007

TV premiering tonight: Samantha Who?

It's been a pretty bleak few years for the sitcom, and this year is no exception. There seems to be at least one bright spot each season, and this fall's is Samantha Who?, an entertaining single-camera show with a premise that seems fairly indebted to My Name is Earl. Earl wins the lottery and learns about karma, and then tries to atone for all the bad things he's done in his life; Samantha awakes with amnesia from an eight-day coma after a car accident, and then tries to become a better person. The humor in the first episode largely stems from Samantha discovering what a mean, lying, cheating, inconsiderate person she was, and trying to remedy that while figuring out what kind of person she really is. Obviously the basic lost-memory jokes will only last for so long, but for now this is a genuinely funny show with entertaining characters (Christina Applegate is completely charming as Samantha), and it's got plenty of heart without being sappy - just like Earl when it first started. I suspect the premise might be a better fit for a feature film, but as long as the jokes keep working, I'll keep watching. ABC, Mondays, 9 :30 p.m.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The end of The Nine & Drive

Two victims of last season's glut of serialized dramas, both Fox's Drive and ABC's The Nine developed tiny but devoted cult followings despite dismal ratings and scheduling inconsistencies. I was a fan of both shows, watching them in their initial brief runs and then waiting patiently for them to return for the promised burn-offs of unaired episodes after they had been canceled. Drive aired four episodes on Fox this past spring before being pulled; the remaining two installments were scheduled and rescheduled several times until finally being pulled altogether. You can still watch all six episodes on the Drive MySpace page, but only the four episodes that aired are available for sale on iTunes.

The Nine fared a little better, airing seven episodes on ABC last fall before getting pulled; it remained in production for the entire 13-episode order, and returned to ABC's schedule in August. Only two episodes aired at that point, though, before the show was once again pulled thanks to low ratings, and the last four episodes were posted on ABC's website. (They're no longer there, but you can buy all 13 episodes on iTunes.) Although neither show achieves resolution in the remaining episodes that were posted online, it was still satisfying to see a bit more of the story, as well as disappointing to imagine what could have been.

I'm not mourning the loss of these shows like I was CBS's Smith, another show that played out online before stopping abruptly. They both have intriguing but inherently limited premises, and The Nine at least started showing its cracks by the end of its 13-episode run. I always found the current-day stories, following the lives of nine people who were hostages in a 52-hour stand-off at a bank, more interesting than the flashbacks to the group's ordeal at the hands of two robbers, and felt that the plot twists related to the initial robbery often seemed a little contrived. As the show went on, there were episodes that offered no revelations about the robbery itself, but were still fascinating in how they explored the different ways people continued their lives after such a traumatic event.

The cast, including reliable TV stalwarts like Tim Daly, Chi McBride and Kim Raver, made the characters into people you could easily care about, and as time went on the constant references back to the robbery started feeling forced. In the later episodes, it seemed like the writers were inventing new twists simply because the show had promised shocking developments, and the revelation in the final episode that one of the most sympathetic main characters had a hand in the robbery seemed to me unnecessarily damaging. If the show had continued, I think its premise might have become more and more like a noose, hampering the storytelling possibilities for the very interesting characters. The 13 episodes don't exactly offer closure, but they provide an ambiguous ending of sorts, and are worth checking out for fans of both involving character drama and serialized entertainment.

Drive never had the dramatic weight of The Nine; it was always more pulpy and more preposterous, but it was plenty of fun to watch while it lasted, and the final two installments continued that path. The story of an illegal cross-country road race, it was from the start absurd and unbelievable, but the likable cast (also filled with dependable TV veterans, like Nathan Fillion, Kristin Lehman and Dylan Baker) and the clever writing kept it entertaining. This was a show that needed its ridiculous and shocking twists to keep going, and provided them with style. The two unaired episodes raise more questions than they answer, presenting mysteries that would presumably have been solved had the show continued. Obviously once the race was over and a winner declared (as well as the details about the nefarious conglomerate behind the race revealed), it would have been tough for there to be a second season. In a way, maybe, it's better with these shows to be left wondering what might have been rather than watching them fill in the blanks with unsatisfying answers.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Movies opening this week

All of a sudden it's become very busy at local theaters, as we get ready for awards season. Most of these movies are worth taking the time to see, provided they stay in theaters for more than a week.

Across the Universe (Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, dir. Julie Taymor)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm a casual Beatles fan at best, but I've been looking forward to this film for a while since I really like Taymor's past work (Titus, Frida) and she makes films so infrequently. Although I'd read plenty of bad reviews (Robert Wilonsky called it "unwatchable" on Ebert & Roeper), I still had high hopes and ended up mildly disappointed. This seems like Taymor reaching for the mainstream and not quite making it, although it may just be that she needed a better screenplay. There are some really awful moments - mostly involving Bono's cameo as a Timothy Leary-esque drug guru - but some really nice ones as well, and those made me long for what this maybe could have been without the bland storyline. I also think that Taymor would do well with a completely original musical, something not tied to existing songs, where she could just let her imagination run free. Clearly that's what she does best. Opened limited Sept. 14; in Las Vegas this week

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, dir. Andrew Dominik)
It's interesting to hear about the way Warner Bros. has been mistreating this movie, because as difficult as it is I think it could be a genuine Oscar contender with the right backing (and still might be). It was dropped in Vegas theaters with virtually no warning, no screenings for the press (we were lucky we were able to squeeze in a review from an out-of-town writer in Las Vegas Weekly, and our counterparts at Las Vegas CityLife were not able to get one at all, nor did the major daily critic review the movie) and no advertising. Nevertheless, the Friday-afternoon showing I went to was fairly well-attended, although I heard some grumbling from people on the way out about how slow and uneventful the movie was.

And it certainly is slow, and far from action-packed considering it's a movie about a famous outlaw. There's a train robbery in the first 20 minutes or so, and then the rest of the 160-minute film is spent with James and his associates brooding, arguing and trying to outsmart each other, not very effectively. The weird, sort of symbiotic relationship between James (Pitt) and Ford (Affleck) is built up slowly and methodically, and Dominik takes the time to let the audience get to know each man (although James remains something of an enigma). The movie is more Ford's story, and Affleck does an excellent job conveying the man's naivete and hero-worship that turns sour when his idol is not everything Ford hoped he'd be. The copious narration (one of many Malick-like touches) can be a little overdone, but it mostly serves to fill in useful and insightful information. The cinematography is stunning, and many of the little moments (especially with Schneider's fairly minor member of the gang) are really masterful, adding up to a whole that is not as perfect as some have made it out to be, but certainly one of the best movies of the year and deserving of a much better treatment than it's getting from the studio. Opened limited Sept. 21; in Las Vegas this week

Manda Bala (documentary, dir. Jason Kohn)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I was so relieved to see a documentary that made an effort to be cinematic that I almost didn't care what this movie was about. The subject matter is pretty fascinating, though, even if it focuses narrowly on certain aspects of life in Brazil and leaves out others, and is yet another documentary about institutional corruption of some kind. Kohn makes valid points in an interesting way, and offers a glimpse into a society that is like ours in many ways, but really alien in a lot of others. Opened limited Aug. 17; in Las Vegas this week

Michael Clayton (George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, dir. Tony Gilroy)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
If I read one more review describing this as "finally, a movie for grown-ups!" I think I am going to scream. This is not the savior of the multiplex; lots of movies for "grown-ups" open every week, and are easy to find if you know where to look. Do we really need the Clooney Seal of Approval to go feel "sophisticated" at the movies? Anyway, that bullshit (which is no fault of the film itself) aside, this is a good, solid thriller with strong performances and an excellent pace. Gilroy, who was involved in writing all three Bourne movies, is a stellar craftsman, and knows how to put together a story. All the talk about this being a "grown-up" movie is just a condescending way of saying that it doesn't talk down to its audience. Something that many entertainment journalists clearly have not learned. Wide release

We Own the Night (Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall, Eva Mendes, dir. James Gray)
Here's another movie pitched at adults who never go to theaters, but it's not nearly as successful. A limp crime thriller with serious third-act credibility problems, it has a few nice moments of suspense but falls flat on believable character development and interesting performances. Phoenix looks half-asleep much of the time, and Wahlberg has much less screen time than you'd guess from the advertising - not that he does much with it anyway. A disappointing misfire that feels far too familiar and played out. Wide release

TV premiering tonight: Women's Murder Club

It's women! Solving crimes! Really, it's sort of sad that the gender of the main characters is the only twist that this thoroughly boring show has to offer on the standard procedural format. Sad not only because that's a pretty weak hook, but also because women achieving things on their own is apparently still a novelty, at least on TV crime shows. Other than some lame, forced female bonding moments, this show progresses exactly like every other crime show, then tacks on a lame plot twist to set up an ongoing storyline that's completely unnecessary. Far too many shows that should work as self-contained stories seem to be adding on superfluous ongoing mysteries this season, and the end of the Women's Murder Club pilot not only feels inconsistent, it also undercuts much of the supposed good work the characters did over the course of the episode. That puzzling development aside, there isn't anything here remotely original or interesting, and star Angie Harmon, who's been fighting crime on TV for years now, ought to find a new way to showcase her considerable talents, which are the show's only bright spot. ABC, Fridays, 9 p.m.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

TV premiering tonight: Life is Wild

Two of the central roles on this show (the parents of a blended American family who move to the wilds of South Africa) have been recast since the pilot I saw, but I doubt it makes much of a difference. This is such a dull, bland show that I can't imagine any actors could make it more interesting or exciting. Filling the safe family drama post now that 7th Heaven is gone, Life is Wild is at least slightly less preachy and self-righteous, but its characters are one-dimensional and its plotting stale and obvious. Shot in an actual nature preserve in South Africa, it has some nice footage of wildlife, but if that's what you're looking for you'd do better to tune in to Animal Planet, which won't have all those annoying actors getting in the way. The CW, Sundays, 8 p.m.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Movies opening this week

The Heartbreak Kid (Ben Stiller, Michelle Monaghan, Malin Akerman, Jerry Stiller, dir. Peter & Bobby Farrelly)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I have been waiting patiently ever since seeing her in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to see Michelle Monaghan get another role that showcases her vibrant talents, and this one is not it, but she does get a few scenes to hint at the kind of charm and warmth and comic timing that she is capable of. She is also about the only worthwhile thing in this movie, which is an awkward mix of extreme raunchiness and lame sappiness, and proves once again that Ben Stiller hasn't put any effort into his work in years. I've never really been a fan of the Farrellys, but this just makes them seem more and more irrelevant. Wide release

The Jane Austen Book Club (Maria Bello, Amy Brenneman, Hugh Dancy, Kathy Baker, Emily Blunt, Maggie Grace, dir. Robin Swicord)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
My Jane Austen-loving former classmate has been less enraged about this movie than about Becoming Jane, and while they do have similarities in their simplistic approach to the author, I think this one gets a pass because it's more about the people who view Austen in that certain misguided way, and what her work means to them. It's also a little more laid-back than Becoming was, even though I think only those with a real softness for cheesy romantic movies will want to bother sitting through it. Opened limited Sept. 21; wide release this week

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

TV premiering tonight: Pushing Daisies

This is yet another show that I was really looking forward to that turned out to be a mild disappointment, although I liked it enough to plan to stick with it for a while and see how it turns out. Creator Bryan Fuller was responsible for the well-regarded Dead Like Me (which I haven't seen) and Wonderfalls, which I liked but found a little excessively quirky and mannered. Daisies, which was originally conceived as a spin-off of Dead Like Me, is also excessively quirky and mannered, and has a convoluted premise that takes pretty much the entire first episode to set up. The pilot is directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who adds greatly to the overly art-directed feel of the show, although at least he's showing some personality here, as opposed to the pilot he directed last fall (Notes from the Underbelly).

The relationship between the two main characters - a guy who can resurrect the dead and his once-dead, long-lost love who will die again if he touches her - is rather sweet and sort of tragic, and once you understand all the rules of the central concept, it seems like it has potential for some interesting stories. But the idea of this show being, essentially, a procedural with magical/comedic elements, is a little dicey, and the murders the main character solves with his P.I. partner (always nice to see Chi McBride) are going to have to be pretty off-kilter to live up to the rest of the show. I hope they will ease off the cloying narration and give the character interplay some time to develop; they've already got a unique show, so let's see if they can get all those odd elements to work together. ABC, Wednesdays, 8 p.m.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

TV premiering tonight: Cavemen & Carpoolers

I know it's sort of unfair to rip on Cavemen (ABC, Tuesdays, 8 p.m.) when all I've seen is the original, since-retooled pilot, which isn't even the first episode they're airing. But, come on: It's Cavemen. It's a TV show based on a mildly amusing commercial. And it's also about the laziest possible execution of the concept that they could have come up with. I mean, yes, this is a dumb idea, but some clever writers could have probably made it sort of funny and weird if they had just gone nuts with it. Instead, the result (again, based on the pilot I saw, which has been revamped) is so painfully obvious that it's really more sad than irritating. It's standard sitcom bullshit about three friends living together and dealing with jobs and relationships, plus some really heavy-handed parallels about the cavemen being metaphors for racial minorities. About the only thing it has going for it is the awesome Julie White as the constantly soused mother of the main character's girlfriend.

But honestly, what bugged me most about this show was not the lame comedy and the cliched characters, but the completely sloppy, inconsistent and frustrating way they go about creating the show's world. I realize this is almost entirely beside the point but to me it showed how deeply the problems go here: What you want as people watch this show is not for them to constantly wonder about the logical inconsistencies, but just to accept the premise and focus on the jokes (then you can get to work fixing the jokes). The basic idea is not that complicated: There are cavemen in our modern world. That's it. But instead of either leaving the background unexplained (and thus unimportant) or simplifying it by dropping our three protagonists in the present day from the past, the show opens with a whole montage explaining how cavemen have actually been living beside regular people throughout history (complete with famous historical photos featuring Photoshopped-in cavemen).

This idea creates a whole host of plot holes. First, we never see any cavewomen. Have the cavemen failed to interbreed with normal people? If so, why does the main character have a non-cavewoman girlfriend? Have cavemen always been an oppressed minority? If so, how do they relate to other oppressed minorities? Other than the presence of cavemen, the world seems exactly the same - this is not some sci-fi alternate reality. But the cavemen are treated with such blatant nonstop bigotry that it's like they are black people in the 1950s. And yet there are also actual black people who appear on the show. So, in this world, did slavery exist? Were cavemen free while blacks were slaves? And if so, how is it that blacks are being treated so much better than cavemen in the present day when they started out in a much worse position? And are there black cavemen?

It is a failure of the show that it made me think about these things. Unless you are in fact doing some serious sci-fi alternate-reality thing, you don't want your audience asking these questions. The only thought they should be having is, "Boy, these cavemen sure are funny." Again, the show has been retooled since I saw it, but not so much that they don't plan to salvage the episode I saw. Which means that these problems are most likely still evident, proving that no one thought this idea through at all. As ill-advised as it is, it's even more pathetic that they don't seem to have even put in a token effort to make it exceed people's extremely low expectations.

Oh, also, Carpoolers (ABC, Mondays, 8:30 p.m.), a completely bland, predictable, standard-issue sitcom (although again without a laugh track so it seems edgy) that looks really, really good in comparison by being paired with Cavemen. Both will be off the air in a month.

Monday, October 01, 2007


Although I don't regularly read any DC superhero books currently (and follow only a handful of Marvel's superhero series), in my early days of comics-collecting I was an avid reader of all of the various Superman and Batman series, starting with the shock-value "Death of Superman" and "Knightfall" stories and continuing for a few years until my interest in the characters, their changing creative teams and their meandering adventures came to an end. Since then, I've occasionally checked in with those characters, mostly in stand-alone miniseries or graphic novels.

DC's in endless-crossover mode these days, but they've still handed the reins of Batman over to Grant Morrison, and his most recent arc is a stand-alone piece with art by J.H. Williams III (the reason I picked it up). Morrison is about to be one cog in a Bat-books crossover resurrecting villain Ra's Al Ghul, but for now he's allowed to sort of be off in his own universe, which is of course the place where he functions the best. He focuses here on the Club of Heroes, also known as the Batmen of All Nations, a relatively obscure and odd concept for which Morrison clearly has much affection (he previously used two of the characters in a JLA Classified arc). Of course, I had to resort to Wikipedia to learn about the history of these characters, since Morrison just drops the reader right into the story with virtually no explanation of who the players are, which was especially frustrating since the story he presents is a closed-door murder mystery. Called to a remote island by their onetime benefactor, the Club of Heroes start getting picked off one by one, presumably by one of their own.

Morrison maintains an eerie, distant tone here, one that makes it hard to engage with the story, and Williams' unconventional page layouts (one of his greatest strengths) add to the sense of disconnect. So although I felt a little uneasy while reading the story, the reveal of the murderer at the end elicited more of a "Huh?" reaction from me than any sort of satisfaction. (Then again, I found the first issue of the JLA Classified story with some of these characters entirely incomprehensible. DC-continuity buffs might find more here to appreciate.)

If Morrison's problem is that he knows too much about obscure Batman continuity and is too eager to show that off, Sam Kieth has the opposite problem in his two-issue miniseries Batman/Lobo: Deadly Serious. This is the third Batman-related mini that Kieth has done for DC in recent years (after Batman: Secrets and Scratch, which featured the Dark Knight in a supporting role), and I can only guess that he does them for the paycheck so that he can finance his more personal indie projects - although it's been over a year since the first issue of his latest Oni series, My Inner Bimbo, came out, with no second issue yet in sight.

Whatever his motivations, it doesn't seem that Kieth has a whole lot to say about Batman, instead using the character to explore his own pet themes, primarily the way that strong women can be threatening to insecure men, and the way that femininity can be an almost mystical force, especially when perceived from outside. Deadly Serious is, on one hand, a complete throwaway of a team-up story between two characters who have no reason to work together. It's got a flimsy premise and a contrived set-up, and it all ends abruptly. On the other hand, it's a weird metaphor for how macho men like the title characters are disturbed and frightened by the natural processes of women's bodies, featuring a sort of grotesque exaggeration of PMS that finds perfectly innocent women going nuts and slaughtering large numbers of people.

Kieth best examines these ideas when he's not shackled to the conventions of the superhero story (even though this is not an especially conventional superhero story), so other than providing him the chance to create some very pretty full-color art (his recent indie work has been in black and white) this series doesn't have a whole lot to offer. It's better than the derivative, unfocused Scratch, but not nearly as successful a marriage of character and creator as Secrets was in its best moments. Both of these books, though, are far more appealing to me than one long, neverending superhero crossover.

TV premiering tonight: Aliens in America

There are only a handful of sitcoms premiering this fall, and most of them are pretty forgettable. Sadly, this is one of them, although it's mildly amusing and has a potentially provocative premise. We've really gotten to the point now where a single-camera show with no laugh track can be as conventional as a three-camera, laugh-tracked show, as Aliens in America effectively proves. This is your standard family sitcom, with the harried, overworked dad, the fussy mom, the nerdy brother and the hot older sister who won't give him the time of day. There are lessons learned and sweet moments of togetherness at the end of each episode (or at least the two I've seen).

The one thing that sets this show apart is its hook, which is that this nice, wholesome Wisconsin family ends up with an exchange student from Pakistan. The pilot plays with the political implications in some fairly daring and funny ways, but by episode two it's strictly predictable fish-out-of-water jokes that could have been done with almost any sort of cultural clash. Like Everybody Hates Chris, the show it follows, Aliens in America manages to turn some pretty edgy concepts into safe, cuddly mainstream comedy, which in a way is sort of subversive but mostly succeeds at making the show fade into the background. The CW, Mondays, 8:30 p.m.