Friday, June 27, 2008

Movies opening this week

How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer (Elizabeth Peña, American Ferrera, Lucy Gallardo, dir. Georgina Garcia Riedel)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
For the first maybe half of this movie, I actually thought it was pretty great, but Riedel lets the story meander on a little too long and heads into a few too many fairly obvious places. Still, the acting (especially from the consistently underappreciated Peña) carries the movie through the rough spots, and it's a nice little indie drama that deserves to be seen. Opened limited May 16; in Las Vegas this week

Mongol (Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Sun Honglei, dir. Sergei Bodrov)
I saw this movie probably at the height of my festival fatigue in the middle of CineVegas, so that may be part of the reason why I found it so dull and uninvolving. Despite featuring a number of huge battle sequences, it's basically about Genghis Khan the devoted husband, and the love story is completely boring and bland. Even the battles seem rote and unoriginal, echoes of other, better historical epics past. That's not to say that there aren't some decent sequences; Bodrov gives the story a suitably grand feel, and there are interesting insights into Mongolian culture. It's nowhere near as bad as last year's abysmal Kazakh historical epic Nomad, which Bodrov co-directed; it's just consistently mediocre, and its focus on Genghis Khan's early years (as the alleged first part of a trilogy) means that many of the bloodiest, most exciting parts of his life are passed over in favor of a trite love story. Opened limited June 6; in Las Vegas this week

WALL-E (Voices of Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, dir. Andrew Stanton)
The praise for this movie has been overwhelming, so I don't want to overstate its quality (pity the four poor souls who've posted negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and earned a flood of insulting comments as a result). But it's quite good, easily one of my favorite Pixar efforts. Just a few weeks ago I was complaining that Kung Fu Panda had a high level of technical sophistication but very little in the way of style or artistry. This movie is the opposite: Obviously it too is very technically accomplished, but it's also clearly a unique artistic vision with style and purpose. It's a little simplistic and quite predictable, but Stanton turns the simplicity into part of the appeal, doing away even with dialogue for much of the movie. WALL-E's antics are deserving of the Charlie Chaplin comparisons, although the social message of the movie is just as broad and loosely defined. It's not an unqualified masterpiece, and I still think Stanton's last film, Finding Nemo, is better, but it's a wonderful example of ambition and artistry in big-studio filmmaking, and I'd be happy to see it make a ton of money. Wide release

Wanted (James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, dir. Timur Bekmambetov)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I feel much the same way about this movie as I did about 300: It's been crafted with a great deal of impressive-looking and distinctive flash that both distracts from and highlights its morally reprehensible core; it will appeal strongly to a certain class of fanboy (i.e., probably the same people who loved 300); its fans will love it unconditionally and defend it vehemently; and yet, it's a cynical, manipulative appeal to the baser instincts of people with pent-up rage and no concern for story or character development or humanity in the movies they watch. I really don't mean to get up on a moral high horse, and I am certainly the last person to pass judgment on someone else's values, but something about this movie's callous disregard for both human life and human emotion really bugged me. I read the first issue of the comic this is based on and felt equally disgusted, and the movie bears out all those arrogant, self-satisfied, solipsistic themes in a big ol' action movie that 14-year-old boys of all ages will, sadly, eat right up. Wide release

Monday, June 23, 2008

TV premiering tonight: Atom TV

Apparently the veteran video website Atom Films is getting a makeover as, a web portal for original comedy programming tied in to Comedy Central (both are now owned by Viacom), but as of this writing the site looks the same to me (here's an article on the switchover from back in November). Regardless, this new partnership has resulted in Atom TV, a Comedy Central show supposedly designed to highlight the best content from Atom and, presumably, get people to check out the site. It is thus odd that this show is being buried at two in the morning in the middle of the week, although the network is at least promoting it by sending out preview screeners to the press.

Not that I would recommend watching the show anyway - most of the content in the first two episodes ranges from horrendously unfunny to merely pointless, and the efforts to Internet-ify the visual presentation come off as particularly clueless and desperate. A status bar at the bottom of the screen that notifies you how much of each segment is left mirrors what you'd see in an online video, but mostly I found myself constantly glancing at it to see how much longer I'd have to endure a given video. The comments from users that pop up reminded me of something you might find on TRL, although at least the producers are brave enough to include the occasional "This is the worst video ever" comment among the dominant "This is awesome" ones.

The most interesting thing to me, actually, was the occasional bit of onscreen info that touted the pedigree of the makers of these videos. The site is spending a decent amount of money to get experienced TV and film creators to make new videos, but it's definitely not worth it. Almost every bit takes one joke and beats it into the ground, or just throws out random absurdity for three minutes or so. Such wastes of time are somehow more tolerable online, when you're only half paying attention to them anyway, but on your TV, even in the middle of the night, standards are slightly higher, and this doesn't even pass the Half-Baked-airing-for-the-millionth-time muster of typical late-night Comedy Central programming. Comedy Central, Monday nights (Tuesday mornings), 2 a.m.

CineVegas wrap

The CineVegas film festival ended yesterday, and I managed to at least sleep in today even though I had some other, unrelated work to finish up. As usual, it was both a great time and tremendously exhausting, and I'm a bit relieved and a bit sad that it's over. Also as seems to often be the case, I missed a lot of the award-winning movies, including narrative Grand Jury Prize winner She Unfolds By Day and Documentary Jury Prize winner Beautiful Losers. And many of the films I liked the most were ones I didn't review, including Visioneers (which won the Dramatic Audience Award), a funny but surprisingly touching and serious dystopian fantasy with a great lead performance from Zach Galifianakis, and Last Cup, a rudimentary but very entertaining documentary about competitive beer-pong players. Here's a handy list of all my CineVegas coverage over on the Las Vegas Weekly website, if you'd like to feel like you were there too (eating bad food-court fast food will help enhance this feeling).

Women in Boxes
Your Name Here
Cocaine Cowboys II: Hustlin' With the Godmother
Happy Birthday, Harris Malden
South of Heaven
Dark Streets
Hank and Mike
The Wackness
The Great Buck Howard

Blog posts:
Thoughts on shorts
Film critics gone wild
Style vs. substance
Regulating expectations
Three cheers for local filmmaking
Further thoughts on shorts
Faux drive-in better in theory than in practice
Rosario Dawson puts on the charm

Friday, June 20, 2008

Movies opening this week

Get Smart (Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, dir. Peter Segal)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I used to love watching reruns of Get Smart on Nick at Nite when I was a kid, and I like both Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway, so I had a certain guarded optimism about this movie. But Segal is an Adam Sandler house director with not much of a sense of satire, and the movie just tries so hard to be an action-comedy that it loses what made the original funny in the first place. Carell doesn't even bring much to the role, and really almost any charismatic actor with action experience could have pulled this part off. It's a waste of Carell's comedic talents, and of some great source material as well. Wide release

The Love Guru (Mike Myers, Jessica Alba, Romany Malco, Justin Timberlake, dir. Marco Schnabel)
This movie is getting absolutely pulverized in reviews, and it seems like people have been preparing for the chance to do so for months now. I, too, have been pre-hating Myers' new film since it was first announced, but I have to say it wasn't as bad as I expected it to be. It was certainly not good, but it wasn't nearly as unbearable as the last Austin Powers movie, and at least it was 20 minutes shorter than Get Smart, and full of jokes. Mostly unfunny, repetitive jokes, sure, but I do have a shameful soft spot for terrible puns and labored meta-jokes, both of which are among Myers' favorite styles of humor. He also apparently loves dick jokes and juvenile bathroom humor, which dominate the movie. In fact, the entire thing is a ridiculously self-indulgent vanity project, filled with everything Myers likes: self-help platitudes, hockey, musical numbers, his annoying celebrity friends. Wayne's World is one of my favorite movies of all time, so it makes me sad to see Myers fall so far, but at the same time I have to admit that I laughed at this movie a few times, and found it too genial and lighthearted to hate with the vitriol that so many have been directing at it. Wide release

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Netflix irritates me for the first time ever

Okay, that's not entirely true; I've dealt with occasional lost or scratched discs, and when I first joined the service and there wasn't a shipping warehouse in Vegas, sometimes discs would take up to a week to arrive. But in general I've been very happy with Netflix for many years, until they announced today that they'd be doing away with their Profiles feature (here's the info at Hacking Netflix). According to the Netflix reps, this is a feature that very few people use and that apparently bogs down their system when they do upgrades, so obviously eliminating it will save them some money. But I sure hope it's a lot of money, since they are making some very vocal customers very angry (the commenters at Hacking Netflix are pissed).

I personally have two queues now, one for movies and one for TV shows. This is convenient for a very simple reason - when I send back a movie, I get another movie; when I send back a TV disc, I get the next disc in that series. Otherwise I would either end up with a bunch of TV series discs and no movies, or be stuck constantly juggling my queue to put the right thing at the top (which is what I will apparently have to do now). This is an incredibly useful feature that I have been very pleased with. Unlike some people, I don't think I'd consider downgrading or cancelling my subscription because of this decision, especially since other services like Blockbuster or GreenCine don't have the Profiles feature anyway. And a lot of things that people are complaining about don't apply to me: I don't have separate queues for family members or roommates, I don't have any ratings or reviews on my secondary queue that will be lost, and I haven't already hit the 500-title limit on my main queue, so I'll be able to add in all the stuff from the secondary one.

But this is still a huge pain, and Netflix seems to have handled the announcement horribly, offering vague promises of "improvements" in service but not saying what they may be, and not allowing users any convenience in transferring their movies either to their main queue or to a new account (they actually suggest printing out your queue, perhaps the most low-tech solution possible). Already many people suspect that this is a way to force people to pay for multiple accounts; even if that isn't the case, that's the impression that the company has created. For anyone who didn't use the Profiles service, its existence or nonexistence is irrelevant, but for the people who did it represents a huge inconvenience and, even worse, a sense that Netflix doesn't care about its customers. One of the company's main selling points versus Blockbuster has always been its customer-friendliness, and it loses big points in that area with this decision.

TV premiering tonight: Black Gold

I've never watched History's Ice Road Truckers or Discovery's Deadliest Catch, the very popular reality shows from producer Thom Beers, but they've clearly hit on some untapped market for stories about very manly men doing manly, primal things. Beers' latest, Black Gold, seems to follow the same formula, forgoing reality-show staples like contrived competitions, teary confessionals and staged situations to document the real-life perils of a tough-guy occupation (in this case, Texas oil drillers). I'm not quite sure I see the addictive appeal of a show like this, which to me seemed more like an educational program than a reality show. Sure, the two episodes I watched did spend a little time sketching out colorful characters on the three oil rigs that are the show's focus, and one episode featured that classic reality-TV staple, the drunken bar fight. But the nature of capturing such a volatile endeavor on tape means there isn't really any time to set up proper vantage points or properly cover each moment of drama, so the show is narrated nearly start to finish, explaining both the fundamentals of drilling and the relationships among the main participants.

You certainly learn more here than from your average reality show, but at the same time there isn't the emotional attachment to the participants that makes the show worth coming back to every week. When the narrator has to explain the same things over and over again (especially how much money everything costs, and how much they lose when things go wrong - the show is obsessed with dollar figures), the show loses its urgency and becomes just something teachers might use to pass the time on a rainy day in school. The producers do make an effort to establish some breakout personalities, but the people are generally too busy drilling oil to engage in too many TV-friendly hijinks. No one's all that lovable or hateable, either - it's not like there are any real-life Daniel Plainviews here drinking people's milkshakes; just hard-working regular guys trying to make a living. That may be admirable, but it's not great TV.

Learning about drilling is sort of interesting, but I don't think I need a weekly hourlong show for that. One special would be more than enough, and the drama here just isn't compelling enough to return week after week. Then again, there seems to be an underserved audience for this sort of thing, so maybe as a sheltered member of the creative class, I just don't get it. Tru TV, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Since Friday, I've been spending nearly every waking hour at the CineVegas film festival, which runs through June 21. I and other Las Vegas Weekly contributors are posting reviews on the Weekly's CineVegas home page and entries at the Weekly CineVegas blog.

For more about the festival, check out my feature on its first year in 1998, or this Variety story on the 10th anniversary (in which I'm quoted a few times).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Movies opening this week

The Happening (Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, Ashlyn Sanchez, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Even as I gave Lady in the Water a scathing review and placed all the blame for its failure at Shyamalan's feet, I have remained a supporter of the filmmaker's independence and stubborn insistence on sticking to his vision, success or not. And although this movie doesn't entirely redeem him, it does move him back into more familiar territory and play more to his strengths. And even when he fails, I still respect his ambitions and willingness to take risks, which is something that's always better than bland, safe pandering (I have a certain respect for Speed Racer and the Wachowskis for the same reason). Anyone making a personal, idiosyncratic statement with a giant studio movie is okay with me. So even though I can't quite recommend seeing this movie, I do hope Shyamalan continues to make more for many years to come. Wide release

The Incredible Hulk (Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, dir. Louis Leterrier)
See, this is what you get when you go the opposite route. Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk film had plenty of problems, but it also had ambition and personality, and this do-over has neither. It plays it completely safe, focusing on action and straightforward storytelling over character development or distinctive visual style, and its primary purpose seems to be set the Hulk up for his appearance in the eventual Avengers movie, teased by Robert Downey Jr.'s cameo at the end as Tony Stark (easily the most exciting moment in the movie). Leterrier and writer Zak Penn (with alleged extensive rewrites by Norton himself) take a curious route, not following the events of Lee's movie but also not retelling the origin themselves, so that they recap events that we've never actually seen (an altered origin story) at the beginning, then cut to five years later as Bruce Banner is on the run from the government and trying not to turn into the Hulk. And then he pretty much just runs through the entire film. About halfway through I wondered when the story was going to start, and then I realized: This is the story. Banner runs, the government almost catches him, he gets away, he runs some more.

There's no emotional weight to it; the filmmakers cast a strong dramatic actor like Norton and then give him almost no drama to portray. Norton and Tyler have no chemistry, and Roth is a pretty tame villain. The action sequences are nothing special, and the climactic battle features one of my pet peeves about action movies: the special effects fighting each other. It all feels so rote and perfunctory, and with none of the wit and energy that marked Iron Man, which was just as conventional in its plotting. This may put the Hulk on track to fit into the Marvel action pantheon, and that's great, but once again I have to say that I prefer failed ambition to unexciting craftsmanship. Wide release

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

More hating

For anyone who might be interested in hearing my insightful commentary on new theatrical and DVD releases each week but can't tune in to X-107.5 at the appointed time (that's Fridays at 6 p.m. Pacific), there's now a Josh Bell Hates Everything blog over at the Las Vegas Weekly website, which will archive each week's broadcast (minus the new Josh Bell Knows Everything call-in trivia segment) for your listening pleasure. The last three weeks are up now, and new broadcasts will be added each week probably a day or two after they air. There may also be other podcasts created specifically for the Weekly up there in the future, but that's yet to be determined.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Movies opening this week

Kung Fu Panda (Voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Ian McShane, Angelina Jolie, dir. Mark Osborne and John Stevenson)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Being almost entirely indifferent to this movie, I am surprised at the outpouring of positive and even glowing reviews for what to me seems like a mediocre, pleasant kids' movie that I will forget about until the sequel comes out three years from now. It does have that cool opening sequence, though, which only serves to highlight the way that CGI has made nearly all animated movies look the same. With tools at their disposal that can theoretically do anything, why aren't the makers of animated films more visually inventive? The computers keep getting us closer and closer to reality with greater and greater detail, but I'd love to see visuals that are more about artistry and less about realism (even in depicting anthropomorphic animals). Wide release

Son of Rambow (Bill Milner, Will Poulter, Jules Sitruk, dir. Garth Jennings)
Although the premise of this movie is winning (cute British kids in the 1980s make their own sequel to First Blood), the execution is inconsistent. When the movie focuses on the moviemaking process, and the sense of wonder and excitement the children bring to it, it's funny and entertaining and touching in the same way as Be Kind Rewind (perhaps even more so, because the characters' emotional investment in their movie seems more real). But the other aspects - the serious explorations of of religion and bullying and broken families, the annoying French kid who comes in and takes over the movie - never jell either with the central thread or with each other. The slapstick moments and the serious, even dark moments clash in a frustrating way, and the movie has less to say about the joys of creating art than I had hoped it would. The kids were charming enough, though, to make it something of a minor success. Opened limited May 2; in Las Vegas this week

You Don't Mess With the Zohan (Adam Sandler, Emmanuelle Chriqui, John Turturro, Rob Schneider, dir. Dennis Dugan)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm not sure why I end up seeing and reviewing so many Sandler movies; things just turn out that way when handing out assignments. But I've never liked Sandler, either in comedic roles or dramatic ones, and I realize I have a sort of bias against him. That said, I found this movie more entertaining than probably any other Sandler movie I have ever seen, which means that I chuckled at a few of the jokes and didn't cringe at the message. Yes, it has Rob Schneider in brownface, and it pretty much makes no sense, and the jokes are often idiotic, and Sandler's character is not particularly well-thought-out. But simply by not being the worst thing I've seen this year, it scores decent points with me. Wide release

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Astonishing(ly protracted) finale

Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men finally came to a close this week with Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1, more than four years after the series first began. While I have defended this book from its critics in the past, and this issue had a number of lovely moments, it ended up feeling like far less of an important story than it seemed at the beginning, and not everything in the oversized finale worked as well as it needed to in order to give the story the sense of grandeur it was clearly shooting for. To me, this is a relatively minor X-Men story with some cool but disposable alien villains, overinflated thanks to its length and Whedon and Cassaday's superstar status. There was plenty of filler in the 25-issue run, especially for a story that turned out to be fairly straightforward in the end. I imagine that read in one sitting it will hold up well, but will it be one of the greatest X-Men stories ever told? Certainly not.

This final issue does play to many of Whedon and Cassaday's strengths: The dialogue as always is crisp and clever, although the sexually charged interplay between Agent Brand and Beast is a little awkward. Whedon demonstrates a talent for writing old-school quippy Spider-Man that might get him asked to join the current Amazing Spider-Man creative team. And he clearly loves Kitty enough to give her a lovely semi-sendoff, in a moment that's truly emotional and heartbreaking even if the stakes never quite seem as dire and real as they should. My guess is that this book is a set-up for some crazy Whedon Kitty Pryde miniseries a few years down the road, and I hope Marvel holds off on doing anything with her and lets him get to that in his own time.

Cassaday also does amazing work as always, and any real scope or heft that the story has as an epic is thanks to his breathtaking art. Here he gets to draw a bunch of Marvel superheroes, and proves that he could totally kill a big crossover book if he ever wanted to. He really sells both the absurd (a giant bullet passes through the Earth!) and the intimate (the emotional moments feel real and not posed). However, as cool as it is to see Cassaday draw all those heroes, their presence feels like a forced delaying tactic to pad the story out, and they don't ultimately add anything by showing up this late in the series. Whedon resists making Reed Richards invent some silly deus ex machina, but then indulges in it at the same time by throwing it in in a dream sequence. It's just superfluous, no matter how great it looks.

As much I still have a fondness for the X-Men, I'm sort of glad this series is finally over, and I hope the next big comics project Whedon takes on will be an original creation that he can do more with than just trot out for nostalgia's sake (even if he does a pretty good job of that).