Friday, December 31, 2004

Movies opening this week

Beyond the Sea (Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, John Goodman, dir. Kevin Spacey)
Man, I am so sick of biopics. This one had the potential to be interesting, as Spacey approaches the story of singer Bobby Darin in much the same way that Irwin Winkler approached the story of Cole Porter in De-Lovely, treating it as a sort of mystical movie being made by Darin about his own life. This gives the fortysomething Spacey the license not only to play Darin, who died at 37, but also to have his actors break out into full-on production numbers at any time. It's also an easy, lazy excuse for any inaccuracies or inconsistencies, one that Spacey trots out frequently as if he feels overly defensive.

There are indeed some wonderful, colorful production numbers, especially the performance of the title song, and Spacey sings all of Darin's songs with aplomb (Roger Ebert even said that Spacey was a better singer than Darin). But it's all in service of a bland, by-the-numbers script that, even with the fantasy element, doesn't do anything but hit all the basic biopic notes. And strong as Spacey's voice is, I still would have liked to hear the actual Bobby Darin sing in a movie about Darin's life, one in which we're constantly told how great a singer Darin is. I admire Spacey's ambition here, but he seems to have gotten lost in his own big dreams. Opened limited Dec. 17; in Las Vegas this week

Wednesday, December 29, 2004


Critics love lists, and I am no different. I think there is a certain list fatigue that sets in at the end of the year, so I realize that my list may sail over your head if you've been reading lists from other critics (as I have). And admittedly many of my picks are the same as others'. But it's still a yearly ritual I can't resist, and in case any of these films passed you by, they are all more than worth seeking out. I could probably have expanded the list to 15 or 20, and since I saw (at last count) 140 movies released in 2004, those are pretty decent odds. Looking back on the whole list of 2004 releases to compile this list and to fill out my ballot for the Las Vegas Film Critics Society, I came away thinking that this was actually a very good year for film, if not the best year in other respects. So here's my self-indulgent list (links are to my reviews in Las Vegas Weekly, where applicable).

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
This is an exhilarating, adventurous, marvelous film, easily the year’s best. Everything, from Charlie Kaufman’s hyperactive and poignant screenplay, to Michel Gondry’s vibrant and inventive direction, to the stellar and moving lead performances from Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, is perfect, and at Oscar season, when safe, predictable awards-baiting dramas are filling theaters, it’s important to remember what truly inspired filmmaking looks like.

2. Before Sunset
Richard Linklater's sequel to his sweet, heartfelt 1995 drama Before Sunrise is one of the most unlikely successes I can think of, considering how little the original called to be revisited. But it's also superior in many ways to its predecessor, a lovely rumination on aging and regret, with two effortless and affecting performances at its core, from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I think it's wonderful that the two best movies of the year are romances, and not romantic comedies that tie their unlikely stories up with a neat little bow, but real, heart-wrenching romantic dramas that show the often fucked up ways that people behave in relationships.

3. The Aviator
Honestly, I'd be happy if Hollywood called a moratorium on biopics, because most of them are the epitome of mediocre, and even good ones tend to be fairly obvious. But then every so often there's one like this, a film that not only tells the story of someone's life but also emerges as a genuine work of art on its own. I know that there are aspects of Howard Hughes's life that Scorsese left out, and I don't care. This is a movie that knows what it wants to do and succeeds at doing that, telling its story and not worrying about what Hughes-philes will say. I can't say enough good things about Leonardo DiCaprio's lead performance, which should win him an Oscar but unfortunately probably won't, losing out to a good but inferior performance in a much inferior film (Jamie Foxx in Ray).

4. Spider-Man 2
Proof positive that blockbuster entertainment can be grand, wonderful art, this is this year's Lord of the Rings. Sam Raimi surpasses his original film by building a richer, more complex story, keeping his focus on his evolving characters, introducing a more nuanced villain, and never forgetting to include the big action and big special effects.

5. The Dreamers
Totally forgotten by nearly every year-end wrap-up, Bernardo Bertolucci's ode to the French New Wave, which came out in February and got mixed reviews, is a challenging and bold drama, another movie about relationships that doesn't offer easy answers. It features a stunning debut performance from Eva Green, who deserves to become a huge star, and manages to be both sexy and dangerous while never becoming prurient, despite its NC-17 rating.

6. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Another overlooked gem of this year, Kerry Conran's visual marvel was a box-office flop that deserves a second chance as a cult classic (and will probably get it). Perfectly capturing not only the look but also the dialogue and plotting of old serials, Conran's film is cornball fun that's also the labor of love of a budding auteur. With as much heart as craft, Conran tells his exciting adventure story so engagingly that you forget about the artifice and just lose yourself in the experience.

7. Garden State
Here's another romantic drama, although this one allows things to resolve a little more simply and positively, which isn't always a bad thing. Zach Braff may be a little too earnest and ambitious in his writing and directing debut, but this is a funny, affecting and wonderfully acted film, with Natalie Portman giving the best performance of her career (too bad it was overshadowed by her slightly less excellent turn in Closer).

8. Vera Drake
Not even out yet in Las Vegas, and I have no idea when or if it will be, but this is a movie that I was sort of dreading seeing and just totally knocked me out. I've always been a little afraid of Mike Leigh movies, which are known for being tough and depressing, and while Vera Drake is both, it's also bold and powerful filmmaking. Imelda Staunton is amazing in the title role, and she should get an Oscar nod even if the rest of the film is unjustly ignored. I'm now a Leigh convert, and I'll definitely be seeking out more of his stuff to see, depressing or not.

9. Sideways
I'm almost begrudgingly putting this one on here, because while I like it, I think the hype has gotten a little out of hand. I think Alexander Payne made better movies in the darker Election and About Schmidt, and I think this is an easy pseudo-indie choice for groups to hand out awards to. That said, it really is a good movie, with beautifully drawn characters and a dynamite performance from the always-reliable Paul Giamatti. I just hope Payne doesn't go all California and optimistic after this success; he's best when he's cranky and bitter.

10. The Incredibles
Looking back, I probably should have given this a higher rating, since it really did nearly everything Spider-Man 2 did with making the superhero genre an effective vehicle for an emotionally rich story, and it had those awesome visuals to boot. I can't wait to see what Brad Bird does next; it's been a while since animation has had such a popular visionary. I wonder if Pixar's bubble is about to burst, what with Cars being pushed back to 2006 and Disney making knock-off sequels to all their properties, but for now this is the latest well-deserved feather in their cap.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Weekend viewing

Long weekend with the holiday, spending time with family and friends visiting from out of town, but thankfully I still made some time to watch this odd assortment of movies.

I Drink Your Blood (David E. Durston, 1970)
Ah, the random things that show up in the mail at work. This is an ultra-cheapie horror exploitation flick, given the kind of DVD treatment you'd expect for a revered classic: commentary, deleted scenes, interviews and so on. I didn't bother with any of those, but curiosity got the better of me, and my perverse dedication to sitting through any movie I start got me to watch the whole thing. It's the kind of thing you'd expect to see on Mystery Science Theater 3000, with terrible production values, giant lapses in continuity, bad acting, nonsensical writing and so on. I kind of wished someone were watching it with me so we could make fun of it together. It's interesting to see what kind of films end up as cult classics in certain sub-strata of fandom; it's too bad it'd be impossible to keep up with all of them. This was sort of fun to watch, if only for the concept of Satanist hippies, the kid who infects the hippies with rabies, and the rabid construction workers. All highly amusing. Otherwise pretty worthless. Oh, and no one drinks anyone's blood, at least as far as I could tell.

3 Women (Robert Altman, 1977)
What a weird, weird movie. I didn't really know anything about this one prior to putting it in my NetFlix queue, other than that it was considered a lost masterpiece of Altman's in some circles. I'm a big fan of what Altman films I've seen, but this was not what I would expect from him. It starts out as the kind of low-key drama you might imagine from Altman, then turns into this bizarre surrealist fantasy that's very reminiscent of David Lynch. I wonder if Lynch was influenced by this film when doing Mulholland Drive - it has a lot of similar elements, including two central female characters who swap identities, the mid-film shift in perspective, and a mounting sense of dissociation and unreality. I was frustrated while watching this movie because it went so directly against what I expected, but after thinking about it a little and reading some criticism online, I think I've come to an appreciation of its eccentricities. Apparently Altman based it on his own dreams, and if you take it that way and don't try to make sense of it, it has a certain hypnotic quality. Also, the acting is great; every time I see Sissy Spacek in anything she just blows me away, and here she's phenomenal. Shelley Duvall, who's fallen way, way down into obscurity, is also great here although her character is intentionally annoying. I don't much care for her in general (she drove me nuts in The Shining), but she's perfect here.

Word Wars (Eric Chaikin & Julian Petrillo, 2004)
I was surprised how much I really liked this movie, a documentary about top Scrabble players. It's drawn many comparisons to Spellbound, which I also really enjoyed, but while that film tried really hard to make serious connections between spelling and social and economic conditions, Word Wars just sets out to entertain and illustrate a few colorful characters. Not that there aren't insightful moments, but it's a much lighter film, a celebration of its four central subjects and their particluar quirks and habits. It's not judgmental or preachy, but it does show different sides of the Scrabble phenomenon, with professional tournaments contrasted with players in Washington Square Park in New York City who play only for the love of the game. You see how Scrabble has consumed the lives of these people, but it never seems like the filmmakers are condescending to them. Overall, it's just fun to watch and the 80 minutes went by in a flash. I'm not sure if it's available on video; it played some festivals and then aired on the Discovery Channel. It's worth catching if it runs again.

Friday, December 24, 2004

New comics 12/22

Astonishing X-Men #7 (Joss Whedon/John Cassaday, Marvel)
Damn. Just...damn. This is quite possibly the best mainstream superhero comic being published today. Whedon totally captures the personalities of all the X-Men individually, writes sharp dialogue that fits each character perfectly, moves plotlines along from previous issues, and creates a truly creepy ending that's reminiscent of some of the stuff Grant Morrison did in New X-Men. I'm still sort of bugged by the return of Colossus, because I'd rather characters stay dead even if the story they died in wasn't stellar. But if Colossus had to come back, I can't think of anyone better to write him than Whedon. This is really the only thing keeping my faith in the X-Men franchise and reminding me why I got so attached to these characters in the first place. As much praise as I'm heaping on Whedon, Cassaday deserves the same amount, as does colorist Laura Martin - no other book looks as nice as this one does. The fight scenes, the costumes, the facial expressions, it's all perfect. It pains me to think that there are only 5 more issues from this team, and then I might no longer have any reason to care about the X-Men. The only thing that would make up for Whedon and Cassaday leaving is if they really sign Whedon to write and direct the next X-Men movie.

Ojo #4 (Sam Kieth with Chris Wisnia, Oni)
I picked up the first three issues of this one kind of haphazardly, but now I'm caught up to this week's new issue. I've been a fan of Kieth's since The Maxx, but his last two projects have sort of disappointed me. Scratch, the werewolf mini that came out from DC a few months ago, was disjointed and boring, and with Ojo Kieth again seems to be retreading his familiar themes, with an outcast girl bonding with a strange creature who's a metaphor for her emotional trauma (in this case, the death of her mother). Plus, I'm not sure which parts of the art Kieth is handling and which parts Wisnia is handling, but some pages look really rushed and sketchy. I know the beginning of this and the end of Scratch overlapped, so I'm not sure if Kieth might have over-extended himself. Still, I loved Four Women and the Zero Girl sequel that both came out fairly recently, so I'm willing to give Kieth the benefit of the doubt, and I like that he just does mini-series these days; it seems like the kind of storytelling he's best at. I know he's supposed to be writing and directing a Four Women movie, which should be very interesting, so this might be his last comics project for a while, and the time off might be a good thing.

X-Men #165 (Chris Claremont/Salvador Larroca, Marvel)
All that great stuff I said about Astonishing X-Men? Reverse it, and that's pretty much how I felt about this. Claremont does a fill-in holiday story to bridge the gap between Chuck Austen and Peter Milligan, and it's just awful. To be fair, it's a fill-in, so it doesn't have to be ground-breaking, but Claremont tries to do about 45,375,578 things with this one issue, including curing Gambit's blindness in about four panels (which is a slap in the face to Austen if I've ever seen one), bringing in a bunch of characters from the New X-Men: Academy X book, having X-23 join the team, telling a heartwarming holiday tale, and including nearly every X-Man currently on the team. It's a little strained, to say the least. Larroca's art is still the one saving grace of the book, although he turns in a particularly ugly cover that looks like he was going for "whimsy" and just missed the mark big time. This may not be as bad as the stuff Claremont's doing on Uncanny right now, but that's only because his awfulness is combined to a single issue. Peter Milligan, can you save this book?

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Movies opening this week

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, dir. Wes Anderson)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I've been going against the hipster/movie critic grain for years with my extreme dislike of Wes Anderson movies, and this one is no exception. I feel somewhat vindicated that he's finally starting to get bad reviews, with many of the same criticisms I've had since Bottle Rocket, like the smugness, the empty quirkiness and the lack of substance. But many critics are treating this like it's a new thing, and Anderson's suddenly gone downhill, when really he's always been a flashy cheat who fooled too many people for too long. Opened limited Dec. 10; wide release this week

Meet the Fockers (Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, dir. Jay Roach)
Some critic likened this movie to Roach's Austin Powers sequels, which are just the same jokes repeated more loudly to bludgeon you into submission. I agree; this movie spends most of its time screaming, "This is funny! Why aren't you laughing?!" I thought Meet the Parents was overrated, funny in parts but too reliant on the same old awkward Stiller shtick that's gotten really old now that he's overexposed it in what seems like half of the comedies released in 2004. This one is too long, has too many characters and tries way too hard. If the mere mention of the word "Focker" gets you laughing, that's about the only reason to see this movie. Wide release

A Very Long Engagement (Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Dominique Bettenfeld, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I liked Jeunet's Amelie, and I liked this too, although both feel a little too precious and at times sickly sweet. I kind of wish he'd go back to the weird darkness of his early films with Marc Caro (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children), or even the sci-fi of Alien: Resurrection (I was one of the few people who liked that one), since his visual style and love for the bizarre seems more suited to tales of the unreal. Opened limited Nov. 26; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, December 20, 2004

Weekend viewing

Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)
This is one of those movies with a cult following that gains a kind of mystical aura because it's not readily available to see and anyone who wants to see it has to order it from some foreign website or buy it abroad or borrow it from a friend of a friend, as I did (a friend of my brother's, to be exact). Oftentimes movies like that have reputations that are far more exciting than their realities, but this lived up to my expectations, and even surpassed them at times. It's a popular Japanese film about a near-future in which unruly teenagers are controlled by the annual Battle Royale, an event that strands a class of high schoolers on a deserted island and pits them against one another in a death match until only one emerges alive. If you think about it, the concept doesn't make a whole lot of sense - is creating this elaborate death tournament really an efficient way to deal with rampant juvenile delinquency? - but once you accept the premise, the movie deals with the situation in a cold, gruesome and highly effective way, showing the pressures and social standards of high school writ large on a literal life-and-death stage. The Japanese import DVD had some sketchy subtitling, so I can only assume that the dialogue is not quite so stilted (or grammatically suspect) as it appears. The plotting is fast-paced and exciting, the characterization is strong, and fans of gore and violence will love it. Quite a good film, and a little better than I expected for an underground cult sensation.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956)
I've seen so many Hitchcock movies that at this point I'm getting close to the bottom of the barrel. Not that this is a bad movie - I've never seen Hitch's 1934 original version, but by most accounts this one is better, and it's got good lead performances from Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day in a serious role. But it's just another one of the "average Joe gets caught up in international intrigue" Hitchcock sub-genre, and after seeing North by Northwest and The 39 Steps, this just comes off as a little repetitive. There is one impressive, wordless sequence that takes place during a concert in London's Albert Hall, notable for how it builds suspense without any dialogue for several minutes, but the rest is largely unexciting and somewhat rote. Not Hitch's best work, but certainly not his worst.

Wide Awake (M. Night Shyamalan, 1998)
Shyamalan's first studio film, generally not that well-regarded, but after being so frustrated with The Village, I felt like I wanted to go back and see where this guy got his start. I think Shyamalan can be enormously talented - The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are both fantastic films - and the backlash he's endured since his first enormous success is often too harsh. But he's clearly become far too enamored of his own press, and has become too pretentious and somber to make anything but over-thought, over-serious films. Wide Awake, about a 10-year-old boy who searches for God after the death of his grandfather, is not over-thought or over-serious; if anything, it's under-thought, as Shyamalan tackles his big spiritual issues without much in the way of a plot. There's nothing supernatural going on here, although there is a twist ending of sorts, and overall the film comes across as something you might find made for the Hallmark Channel. The main problem is that Joseph Cross, who plays the central kid, is no Haley Joel Osment, and gets annoying rather quickly. In fact none of the kid actors come off as more than just cute, which is surprising given the more subtle work Shyamalan did with kids in The Sixth Sense and Signs. You can see him working on his pet themes about faith and trust, but it's all wrapped in a treacly, family-friendly bow that's typified by Rosie O'Donnell as a spunky, baseball-loving nun. Interesting for curious Shyamalan fans but otherwise not worth your time.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

New comics 12/15

Cable & Deadpool #10 (Fabian Nicieza/Patrick Zircher, Marvel)
The ending to the latest storyline is a little convoluted, but overall I think Nicieza did a good job of balancing the philosophical ideas and the superhero action. And the ending leaves open some interesting possibilities for the next story. I'd kind of like to see this book get back to straight, old-school superheroics, but even when tackling larger issues, Nicieza always has fun with continuity and some neglected corners of the Marvel universe. Still a fun book to read, if a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril #1 (Joshua Dysart/Sal Velluto, Penny Farthing Press)
Picked up sort of on a whim after reading about it online, because I've heard good stuff about Dysart's writing, I liked Velluto's work on Black Panther (with inker Bob Almond, who's also on board here), and the premise sounded fun. Apparently it's a sequel to a mini-series that Penny Farthing published a few years ago, which I had never heard of, but it's not hard to pick the story up here. Velluto and Almond's work is just as good as I remember if not better, and they do a great job of capturing the Golden Age and old Hollywood feels of the story. It's a little less light-hearted than I anticipated from the previews, taking the concept a little too much at face value, but it's an entertaining read nonetheless, and I'll stick around for another issue. I'm also impressed with Penny Farthing's production values, from a company I'd barely even heard of, with full color, lettering from Comicraft, glossy paper and a cover price no higher than the average Marvel or DC comic. I'm not sure how they do it, but it's great if they can keep it up.

Ex Machina #7 (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
There's a lot going on in this issue, and Vaughan keeps all the balls in the air admirably, touching on the gay marriage issue, the flashback plot and the mysterious symbol, moving each one forward. There's one really gruesome and well-executed scene in here, with a woman possessed by something and stabbing herself in the eye, that's just really well-paced and depicted, which speaks to Harris's storytelling skills as well as his illustration skills. It's the first time I've gotten a real sense of dread from this book, and I'm excited to see where it goes next. As has been noted elsewhere, between this, Y The Last Man and Runaways, Vaughan is the modern master of the cliffhanger in comics.

Ocean #3 (Warren Ellis/Chris Sprouse, DC/Wildstorm)
This issue finally gets into some plot developments, and honestly I'm less impressed than when it was all about creepy atmosphere. There's your standard Ellis evil corporation, and the (literally) mindless corporate drones are kind of a nice touch, but not all that intriguing. Instead of drawing the impressively bizarre splash pages of the first couple of issues, Sprouse just gets talking heads and one really confusing fight sequence. There's three more issues to go, so I hope Ellis can bring the plot in line with all the cool concepts he introduced at the beginning.

Trigger #1 (Jason Hall/John Watkiss, DC/Vertigo)
Blah blah dystopian future blah blah. That's about how exciting this was. Vertigo has been launching some pretty derivative new titles lately, what with their standard old-school Vertigo goth/mystical nonsense (The Witching, Books of Magic: Life During Wartime) and now this, which is like Transmetropolitan only without the humor. An evil corporation controls the country in the future, strange shit is going down, and only one man can stop it. The noir-ish art is cool, but doesn't seem to fit this kind of story. The ending sets up a bit of a twist that could be interesting, but I'm not sure if I care enough to pick up the next issue and find out.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Movies opening this week

The Aviator (Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, dir. Martin Scorsese)
I remain kind of indifferent to Scorsese despite his legendary status, although admittedly I haven't seen many of his accepted masterpieces (Mean Streets, Raging Bull, GoodFellas). I found Gangs of New York deathly boring, and this one looked like another bloated, Oscar-baiting biopic in a season full of them. So imagine my surprise that not only was this an effective representative of its genre, but an absolutely wonderful film as well. The biopic has plenty of inherent limitations, and some are on display here, but this is certainly about as good as you can get within what is generally a pretty staid genre. Scorsese does a good job, but what it really comes down to is DiCaprio, and man does he deliver. This is easily the best performance by an actor this year, and it'll be a shame if Jamie Foxx gets the Oscar over DiCaprio. Not that Foxx did a bad job in Ray, which was certainly an inferior movie overall; but while Foxx meticulously re-created Ray Charles down to every last vocal inflection and bit of body language, he didn't create the living, breathing person that DiCaprio manages here. I can't say whether he got Howard Hughes's every tic correct, since I haven't seen as much footage of Hughes as I have of Ray Charles. But he certainly made me believe in the person he portrayed, made me care about him and invest in him for nearly three hours.

Blanchett is also wonderful as Katherine Hepburn, doing more of the Foxx-style re-creation but still getting at the core of who the person is. Scorsese wisely narrows his scope to 20 years of Hughes's life; the best biopics usually choose a certain arc to the person's life, creating a narrative rather than feeling obligated to include every little moment. Even if you don't see Hughes's later years as a recluse, you get a full and rich picture of who the man was and would become. One of the great things about this film, too, is that it's so damn entertaining, which was a real surprise to me, and not something you necessarily expect of a film of this type. It's funny, and exciting, and that makes it all the more powerful when tragedy strikes. A film like this is usually a chore to watch, even if it's rewarding, but The Aviator is good popcorn entertainment just as it is a striking piece of film art, and that's quite an achievement. Opens limited this week; wide release next week

Flight of the Phoenix (Dennis Quaid, Giovanni Ribisi, Miranda Otto, dir. John Moore)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I was pleasantly surprised watching Robert Aldrich's original last week, but the remake only shows the strengths of Aldrich's film. It's got no reason for existing on its own; it follows the plot nearly to the letter, adding nothing worthwhile. The very definition of a pointless remake, and evidence of the lack of ideas in many corners of the film industry. Wide release

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (Jim Carrey, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, dir. Brad Silberling)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I went back and forth between giving this a mild recommendation and a mild non-recommendation and ended up going with the latter, but really it's harmless stuff, and better than most kids' movies out there. It's Tim Burton-lite, essentially, with Carrey chewing scenery and a patina of darkness over the same old feel-good story. But most adults will find something to be entertained by if they are stuck dragging their kids to it, and that's good enough, I suppose. Wide release

Spanglish (Adam Sandler, Paz Vega, Tea Leoni, dir. James L. Brooks)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I cannot emphasize enough how much I hated this movie. I was literally seething with rage coming out of the screening. It's even worse to see mainstream critics like Ebert & Roeper praising it, totally fooled by the fake feel-good sentiment and disingenuous liberal-guilt bullshit. As a colleague pointed out to me, most critics are financially secure liberal white males, so maybe that's why they're lulled into reassurance by Brooks's odious and insulting stabs at political correctness. The only mainstream critic who really got close to the heart of what bothered me was A.O. Scott in the New York Times, who sort of glances off of the smug condescension bubbling under the surface of the film before blithely dismissing it. I think this is the kind of movie that will pass off as innocuous because people have gotten used to this sort of cultural paternalism in Hollywood films and they won't recognize it for what it is. That may be an endemic problem, and thus unfair to single this film out for, but nowhere is it better highlighted than in a movie that pretends to be open-minded and inclusive when in reality practicing the worst kind of arrogant racism. Wide release

Monday, December 13, 2004

Weekend viewing

The Flight of the Phoenix (Robert Aldrich, 1965)
I wasn't all that excited about seeing this one to prepare for reviewing the new version, but I was pleasantly surprised. It's a solid thriller with a good cast, the equivalent of a summer event movie for its time. It's a little slow at first, and a little long at almost two and a half hours, but the characters are developed nicely, there's real suspense, the acting is good and the little twist at the end is amusing but not annoying, and actually informs the story in a meaningful way. It was good enough to make me even more wary of the remake, which looks like it's been action movied up, and that doesn't bode well.

New comics 12/8

District X #8 (David Hine/Lan Medina, Marvel)
Okay, I give up on this. It's not necessarily bad, but I've been totally bored with the last three or four issues, and there's no reason to keep paying money for it month after month. We're two issues into the new storyline that I said I'd give a chance, and I still don't care. It's a boring variation on the Morlocks, with abrupt character changes and really bland art. I don't know if David Yardin is coming back, but Medina's art is completely generic, and the whole thing has lost my interest, which is too bad since it started out well.

Fables #32 (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham, DC/Vertigo)
Another typically stellar issue, with some good mysteries introduced. Willingham is doing a good job of keeping me interested in background characters like Beast that have been pushed to the forefront recently, and I almost didn't miss Bigby's presence in this issue. Not much else to add that I haven't said about the last few issues, but I do want to note one thing: In his recent review of the March of the Wooden Soldiers collection (scroll down), Steven Grant dismisses the art as "fine" and focuses solely on Willingham's writing, and I think a lot of fans of this book do that as well. It's too bad; Buckingham's art, as I've noted on here and in Las Vegas Weekly, is a key contribution to the book. His characters are expressive and unique, his layouts are creative and his backgrounds are full of subtle details that add to the overall experience. Willingham is, of course, an excellent writer, and the book still succeeds when Buckingham isn't around. But to discount Buckingham's contributions so casually I think does the book a disservice.

Noble Causes #5 (Jay Faerber/Fran Bueno, Image)
Wow, two issues in two weeks. Everything I said last week still stands; Faerber has gotten me back on board just as I was about to drop this book. There is a big resolution to one of the ongoing plots this issue, so not as many cliffhangers to keep you on the edge of your seat, but there are still several subplots simmering, and another bombshell dropped at the end. I hope Faerber can keep up the twists and turns, and the overall quality of recent issues.

Powers #7 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Avon Oeming, Marvel/Icon)
Bendis has really found a way to take this book in a new direction, with Deena's mysterious powers and Walker's relationship with the new Retro Girl. At the same time I'm glad he's brought back the basic structure, with Walker and Deena investigating powers-based crimes, after the epic that ended the last volume and the first storyline of this volume. A good example of evolving smartly while keeping what made the book work in the first place intact.

X-Men: The End #6 (Chris Claremont/Sean Chen, Marvel)
I give up on this, too, in a big way. The end of the first mini-series seems to be an appropriate place to bow out, and all my interest has left, to be replaced by irritation. This is just a mess of a story, with no discernible point. My one-time amusement at seeing every obscure X-character ever trotted out has been blunted by the fact that half of them have turned into impostors anyway. I still like Chen's art, and I wish they'd give him a book I might actually want to read (he could probably spruce up District X). But Claremont has wasted any goodwill he'd built up at the beginning of the series. It'll be good to cut back on my X-books reading, which was at the highest point it had been in years, and spend my money on something more interesting and original.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Movies opening this week

Blade: Trinity (Wesley Snipes, Ryan Reynolds, Jessica Biel, dir. David S. Goyer)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Some people just go nuts over the Blade franchise, but I've been fairly indifferent. The first two installments were decent enough, but this one is just a waste of time. I really hope Goyer doesn't get to do his Nightstalkers spin-off movie, because I don't think I could sit through an entire film of Ryan Reynolds' lame wisecracks while he shows off his pecs and kicks vampire ass. As it is, that was half of this movie. Wide release

Ocean's Twelve (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Catherine Zeta-Jones, dir. Steven Soderbergh)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I love Steven Soderbergh, so it pains me to say this, but this movie is just one giant act of hubris, a feature-length pat on the back for being so cool and suave and hanging out with celebrities. One reviewer likened it to the cool kids at school making fun of the rejects really loudly so everyone could see how cool they are, and that's a pretty accurate assessment. The sad thing is, I do think these people are cool, at least in a good number of their movies, so it's all the more painful to see them so self-consciously trying to prove their coolness. A self-indulgent bore that looks pretty and has a few funny jokes. I really hope Soderbergh got it out of his system and gets back on track soon. Wide release

Tarnation (documentary, dir. Jonathan Caouette)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This was one of those movies that I'd heard so much about for so long that there was an inevitable disappointment when I finally saw it. It feels so contrived at first, with Caouette taking a painful and very personal call about his mother being admitted to the hospital, but taking care to turn on the camera and position it properly beforehand. It's hard to imagine that coming naturally, but when you go back and see Caouette filming his most emotional moments as far back as age 11, way before he knew he was making a movie, you realize that it's just his coping mechanism. Still, there are moments, especially the very end which is obviously staged to some degree, when you wonder where Caouette the subject ends and Caouette the filmmaker begins, but that's the beauty of the film, I suppose. In any case, it's utterly unique and astounding how much he was able to contruct on just a Mac and iMovie. It should inspire a lot of people, which will undoubtedly lead to self-indulgent rip-offs, but also, hopefully, to a few more daring experiments. Opened limited Oct. 6; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, December 06, 2004

Weekend viewing

Beautiful Girls (Ted Demme, 1996)
Man, this really wanted to be the Diner of the '90s, didn't it? I'm a sucker for these "aimless twentysomethings sit around and deconstruct their lives" type of movies, so I enjoyed this one, but it's not the best example of the genre. Everything works out just a little too well, characters are over-articulate and eloquent at just the right moments, and it's just too upbeat and rosy for my tastes. Still, after being so impressed with Natalie Portman in Closer and Garden State this year, it's nice to see that even at 15 she was a remarkably good actor. Her character is the most overly articulate of them all - a 13-year-old would never speak in those kinds of fully-formed literary-allusion-heavy sound bites - but she really sells the lonely little girl who desperately wants to be a grown-up.

Bob Le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1955)
I've been wanting to see this ever since I saw Neil Jordan's remake, The Good Thief, which was my pick for the best film of 2003. The two are bookends to the French New Wave in a way, Melville's film influencing the movement, Jordan's paying tribute to it. Melville's Bob, unlike Jordan's, is more debonaire and restrained, not a drug addict and not as close to the edge of breakdown. But both are magnetic, charismatic cads, and both films are brilliant character studies. You can really see how influential Melville was on the New Wave in this movie - the camera is much more steady, and the plot more subdued, but the love of B-movie style, the grit, the criminals as complex characters, all that is there. The relationship between Bob and Anne is sweet but rough, and full of unexpected nuance. I still was more entertained by Jordan's version, but of course it couldn't exist without Melville.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

New comics 12/1

Captain America and the Falcon #10 (Christopher Priest/Joe Bennett, Marvel)
We're getting to the point in every Priest storyline where so many convoluted threads are coming together that I honestly have no idea what's going on. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since part of what Priest's writing thrives on is the reader being as confused about what's going on as the characters are, letting you share their sense of disorientation. But overall I haven't been as involved in this book as I was in Black Panther, and I'll be happy to get the MODOK story out of the way and move the focus to something else.

Fallen Angel #18 (Peter David/David Lopez, DC)
Everything comes to a head in what was initially going to be the book's last issue, and while the revelations were interesting, I think this will read better in collected form. Given the two-month gap until next issue, I might go back and read all 18 issues over again, since they clearly form one very powerful story. Overall, David kept me guessing to the end, and while there was a certain sense of closure to this issue, he's set up plenty of material to work with down the line, and I hope the book sticks around past the two-issue reprieve it's gotten from DC.

Hunter-Killer #0 (Mark Waid/Marc Silvestri, Image/Top Cow)
I had no interest in this book, but it's hard to pass up a 25-cent comic, so I figured I'd give it a shot. I'm not a huge Waid fan, but I've liked some of his stuff (Kingdom Come, Empire) quite a bit, and most of his work that I don't bother with has a fairly high continuity-based barrier to entry. I've never much cared for Silvestri's work, and his recent murky art on New X-Men totally turned me off. Given those two starting points, this is pretty much what I expected: A generic action-adventure story with some above-average writing and sketchy art. Waid pulls off a nice little bit of misdirection in the opening sequence, but the concept of superhumans hunting other superhumans is totally boring. Silvestri's art is painful to look at, and the character designs are interchangeable with most Top Cow characters of the past decade. On top of that, the next issue isn't out until March, so even if someone likes this, how likely are they to remember to pick it up again three months from now? A mediocre book with a decent marketing gimmick that was bungled poorly. Overall, I'd say I got my money's worth, but nothing more.

The Monolith #10 (Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray/Phil Winslade, DC)
You know, when I heard this book was getting cancelled, I was bummed, but I really haven't been enjoying it nearly as much recently, and I honestly don't think I'll miss it that much. This issue wraps up the anti-Monolith storyline rather quickly, which might just be because they want to get to the final storyline sooner, but it does feel rushed. Plus the dialogue has been reading awfully stilted lately. Tilt says, "I'd rather be protecting you and fighting this monster than the one I have inside my body!" I mean, come on. The AIDS issue of Green Arrow was pretty clumsy, and I thought Palmiotti and Gray handled Tilt's diagnosis well at first, but stuff like that makes me think that superhero comics should stay away from social issues, which of course is not the case. I still think this is a strong concept with good characters, but it just hasn't grabbed me lately.

Noble Cause #4 (Jay Faerber/Fran Bueno, Image)
I keep going back and forth on this one, and was all but ready to drop it after the second issue of this latest volume, but Faerber sort of hooked me with last issue's cliffhanger, and here he really nails the soap-opera plotting that it seemed to me he hadn't quite gotten in earlier issues. I think it takes time to build up the large cast of characters and intricate relationships that you need for that sort of plotting to have the right impact, and at this point Faerber is there. I'm still not entirely invested in all of the characters, but Faerber has achieved the one most important thing for a soap opera: He's got me dying to figure out what happens next.

Uncanny X-Men #453 (Chris Claremont/Andy Park, Marvel)
I really don't know what else to say about this book anymore. Claremont has got me considering dropping it for the first time in years. Even Chuck Austen didn't push me this far. It's pointless to go into all the nonsensical plotting and jumps in logic in this issue. It has absolutely no redeeming value as a story and Park's art, while pretty, is nothing special. I don't want to become one of those completists who just buys an issue and then puts it in a box without reading it, but I'm getting there.

Y The Last Man #29 (Brian K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra, DC/Vertigo)
Jay Faerber could take notes from Vaughan on crafting the perfect cliffhanger, which he does nearly every issue and does again here. This has been a great storyline, moving things forward while being full of insightful character moments. The reveal about what's really wrong with Yorick is handled maybe a little too patly, but given that it's followed by the superb cliffhanger ending, I don't really care. Another top-notch issue.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

What makes a good critic?

Browsing around last week for early reviews of Closer, I came across this site, which impressed me enough that I added it to the Signal Bleed links. There are tons and tons of movie critics in print and online these days, and all it takes is a quick look through the reviews for any new release on Rotten Tomatoes to see how sloppy and amateurish most of them are. Nowadays anyone with an opinion and a website can be a film critic (says the pot to the kettle). But while the Internet has led to the proliferation of idiotic movie "critics" and the dumbing down of the whole enterprise, it's also led to more exposure for smart, literate people with well-considered opinions who otherwise would not have gotten their criticism in print. The critic at Movies Into Film, N.P. Thompson, apparently writes for some obscure newspaper that I would have never come across, but thanks to the magic of the net, I can read and recommend his intelligent, biting reviews conveniently.

In fact, most of my favorite critics I discovered online, and that brings me to the title of this entry. While I appreciate people like Manohla Dargis at the New York Times and the venerable (if perhaps veering into senility) Roger Ebert, my favorite critics are the bitter, cantankerous sorts like N. P. Thompson. People who take movies very, very seriously, probably too seriously for a mainstream publication, and have no reason to hide their contempt for Hollywood, movies they don't like, other critics, etc. People who often have opinions very different from mine, and will savagely tear into a movie I thought was great, or heap praise on something I found completely mediocre. The great thing about critics like this is that, while they may be unpredictable to a certain degree, they will always defend their opinions with passion and sound reasoning, which is far more important than whether I agree with them. Given the bland sameness of most movie criticism out there, it's refreshing to find someone who thinks for themselves, and actually knows how to write in a clear, cogent manner. It's not something I come across all that often.

Movies opening this week

Closer (Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, dir. Mike Nichols)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Reaction on this one has been very mixed, and personally I was kind of torn about it. While watching the movie I was very impressed, but thinking about it afterward a lot of what seemed cool to me just came off as empty. It's very flashy in its own way, with lots of twisty turns of phrase and vulgar language that is meant to be shocking, but has strangely little meaning behind it. It's probably worth seeing just for the acting, though - the National Board of Review was right to give it a special award for ensemble acting. I think Natalie Portman will become a respected, sought-after movie star after this and her performance in Garden State, as well she should. Too bad she's got another stilted Star Wars prequel still to come. Wide release

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Weekend viewing

Long weekend=lots of time to watch movies. What, you expected I might do something productive?

Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998)
Blade II (Guillermo del Toro, 2002)

Actually, this counts as being productive, since this is really just prep work for reviewing the new Blade movie next week. I was kind of underwhelmed by the first Blade when I originally saw it a few years ago, since it had been hailed as the savior of Marvel comic book movies, before the X-Men and Spider-Man films came along. It didn't seem that revelatory to me then, although I guess when your alternatives are Dolph Lundgren as the Punisher and David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury, this comes off pretty well. Seeing it for the second time with lowered expectations, I found it enjoyable enough on a dumb action level. Wesley Snipes is ridiculously gruff and monosyllabic as Blade, about at the acting level of Dolph Lundgren, but the movie is stylish and the action is cool and at least the story makes some sense. Norrington went on to make one of the worst recent comic book movies, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, afterwards, so maybe more credit should go to writer David S. Goyer, who wrote all three Blade films and is the director on the third one. Del Toro's film was praised by certain critics, including infamously by Harry Knowles, for its sexual and political subtext, but I think that's reaching a little. It's better than the first movie because del Toro has a better sense of style, and he does play a little with Cronenbergian sexual imagery in the design of the Reapers, but really it's still a hack-and-slash action/horror movie. Snipes is even more inert, and his love interest is less compelling. Del Toro did a better job adapting a comic book in Hellboy, although you have to give him credit for taking Blade, a one-note character, and finding a few new beats to play with.

Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, 2004)
I've had this sitting next to my TV for months now, and I never got around to watching it. Since awards season is approaching, I wanted to give it consideration for the documentary category. Which, I can say after having watched, it certainly deserves, as its look at Al-Jazeera in the early days of the Iraq war is more nuanced and insightful than most of the left-wing docs released this year. Noujaim seems to take a position against the war, but that doesn't stop her from airing both sides of the argument, with extensive coverage of anti-war Al-Jazeera employees as well as media relations officials from the U.S. Army. The smartest thing Noujaim does is find two central characters who don't fall neatly into either camp. One is an Al-Jazeera producer who spent years working in Britain for the BBC, has a British wife living in Israel, and expresses his supreme faith in the U.S. Constitution. He also finds the Iraq invasion monumentally stupid, but spends as much time chastising Arabs for blaming all their woes on the West. The other is an Army PR officer who starts out spouting typical U.S. propaganda, but comes to a more balanced understanding of the way that both Al-Jazeera and Fox News spin the news from their own perspectives, and even has a near-epiphany about the way that the dead from each side are portrayed on the news. This is a film, I think, that both right- and left-wingers could appreciate for the way it shows bias in all media, not just our own, and exposes the impossibilities of reporting objectively on something as huge as war.

Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)
This was my first exposure to Breillat's work, which is known for being sexually explicit and confrontational, with distinct anti-male undertones. All of that is present here in the story of a 12-year-old girl who witnesses the seduction of her 15-year-old sister by a sleazy older man while they're on vacation. The infamous central scene, which Breillat re-creates and deconstructs in her new movie Sex is Comedy, is indeed a tour de force and a torture to watch. Breillat barely moves the camera for something like 15 minutes, focusing her unblinking eye on 15-year-old Elena and her older suitor in bed as he painstakingly breaks down her barriers and ultimately gets her to allow him to deflower her in a most degrading manner. The rest of the film is an exploration of toxic sexual politics, viewed through the jaundiced eye of the title character. She, and the film, are cynical to a fault, and could be seen as simplistic, although I prefer to view it as presenting an extreme in order to make a point. At first the ending really bugged me, but after thinking a bit and doing some reading online, I've come to see that it has a certain poetic justice to it. Still, it bothers me that so many self-consciously arty films end this way, with a sudden, inexplicable tragedy that often strikes me as unearned. Two movies I can think of that I saw recently that ended like this were Lisa Cholodenko's High Art and Michael Cuesta's L.I.E., both of which I thought were good movies marred by their cheap endings. In this case I'm more ambivalent about it, but it's still a trend that bothers me, especially in American indie film.

Ocean's Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001)
More prep work, this for reviewing Ocean's Twelve in a week or two. I'd seen this before when it was first released, and came away feeling a little disappointed, since Soderbergh was on such a role of distinctive, thought-provoking pictures, and this one was, well, fluff. This time, not expecting anything more than fluff, I had a great time, and I think that you don't get much better fluff than this. Soderbergh still drenches the movie in style, even if he pulls back a bit from the mannerisms of his other films, and the cast is perfect, and obviously having the time of their lives. There's actually quite a bit of substance to the relationship between the George Clooney and Brad Pitt characters, and some really smart dialogue. The screenwriter, Ted Griffin, also co-wrote Matchstick Men, another smart heist flick with snappy dialogue, and I'm disappointed to see he didn't work on the sequel. Still, this was a fun movie and I have high hopes that Soderbergh & co. can pull it off again.

Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)
Mann's first feature, starring James Caan as a thief trying to get out of the biz. You can see a lot of the themes and elements that later ended up in Heat, which is a superior film, but this one still stands well on its own. Caan's character has much in common with the De Niro character in Heat, with his conflicted sides as a career criminal and a husband and father (although De Niro was just beginning to pursue a romantic relationship), and the way he cautiously invites a woman into his life only to push her away when things get rough. Caan is excellent in the role, selling all the aspects of his character's personality, making him likable even as he's violent, misogynistic and racist. Like Manhunter and, I'd imagine, all of Mann's '80s work, this has a horrendously dated synthesizer score, but otherwise it's an excellent early example of the work of one of our best and most under-appreciated directors, someone who understands the inner lives of macho, egotistical men better than almost any other filmmaker.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Movies opening this week

Alexander (Colin Farrell, Jared Leto, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, dir. Oliver Stone)
Every bit as awful as you've heard. Not only bad, but three hours' worth of bad. It's hard to know where to begin with the missteps on this film. There's little things, like the fact that they dye Colin Farrell's hair blond but do a really bad job of it, so you can see the roots. It looks like he dyed his hair poorly, except they didn't have hair-care products like that in 323 B.C., did they? There's the mish-mash of accents, from Farrell's Irish lilt to Jared Leto's put-on mild British accent to some commander's Scottish brogue to Rosario Dawson's "I vant to zuck your blud" voice to Angelina Jolie's awesomely bad Boris-and-Natasha whatever accent. There's a script that is full of long, dull speeches about heroism, and only two battle sequences. Two battle sequences in a three-hour movie about a conqueror! Is anyone even paying attention? There's the laughable gay subtext, which consists of smoldering glances and some really passionate hugging. There's Stone's annoying narrative device of showing the bird's eye view from an actual bird, which he clumsily and pointlessly identifies with Alexander. There's Anthony Hopkins narrating the whole thing like it's a show on the History Channel. There's bad acting all around, except from Jolie, who seems to realize she's in a camp classic in the making and goes over the top sexy/evil with Olympias, fondling her snakes (not a euphemism) and sexually harassing her son. She's so entrancingly ridiculous that's it's almost worth seeing the movie just for her. Wait, no it's not. Wide release

Finding Neverland (Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Freddie Highmore, dir. Marc Forster)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
One of those Oscar-bait pictures that's totally hoodwinking most critics. Really just sentimental claptrap with a reliably good but not exceptional performance by Johnny Depp. The kind of movie undemanding soccer moms will like, which is probably why the woman next to me at the screening was bawling her eyes out. Opened limited Nov. 12; wide release this week

Kinsey (Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Peter Sarsgaard, dir. Bill Condon)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Another Oscar-bait picture, but a much better one. Not as unconventional as Condon's last biopic, Gods and Monsters, but still a good exercise in the genre, better than Ray and a whole lot better than Finding Neverland. Notable for not pulling any punches on the sexually explicit material, although it does elide some of the criticisms of Kinsey's research methods. Still, it's ridiculous how worked up some conservative groups are over this movie, and sad that honesty about sexuality can still anger right-wing Christians 50 years after Kinsey's studies were first published. Opened limited Nov. 12; in Las Vegas this week

The Machinist (Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Sharian, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, dir. Brad Anderson)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I think Brad Anderson is one of the most underrated directors in American cinema right now. He's a better filmmaker than those two other, overrated Andersons, Wes and Paul Thomas. He's at least as good as other young turk hotshots like Spike Jonze, David O. Russell and Sofia Coppola. And he's more consistent, working in the confines of genre films (here the Twilight Zone-esque thriller) to bring out insightful truths about humanity. This film suffers a bit from being Anderson's first that he hasn't written himself, but he does more with the sometimes-obtuse script than almost any other filmmaker could (David Fincher comes to mind as someone else who could have made this film). He knows how to choose the right collaborators, from a cinematographer who'll make every frame match the mood, to an actor (Bale) who'll shed 60 pounds to properly convey the intense agony of the lead character, to a composer who'll write a score that perfectly evokes the works of Bernard Herrmann. This is a creepy, disturbing film, worth seeking out. Also worth seeking out are Anderson's last two little-seen films, the freaky 2001 haunted mental hospital movie Session 9, and the totally bizarre 2000 sci-fi rom-com Happy Accidents. See these films and you'll see why Anderson deserves at least to be mentioned in the same breath as those other neo-auteurs. Opened limited Oct. 22; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, November 22, 2004

Weekend viewing

All the President's Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
Fucking awesome. The whole renaissance of mainstream American cinema in the 1970s has been one of my favorite periods to explore, but I was a little disappointed by the last two movies I saw from the period, The French Connection and Last Tango in Paris. I was almost beginning to think I'd been fooled by a couple of really good movies I saw in film classes in college. But this is exactly what I loved about other great movies of the '70s, with complex, layered storytelling, brilliant, naturalistic acting (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are great, as is the entire supporting cast) and a strong social conscience. It's almost hard to believe that this film was made right in the aftermath of Watergate, when all that stuff was still raw. It'd be like someone making a brilliant movie about the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1997. Even with all the mixed feelings that must have been floating around at the time, this film takes on the scandal head-on and pulls no punches, but it's also in no way sensationalistic. It gives you a clear sense of who Woodward and Bernstein are as people without letting their personalities overwhelm the story. It's straightforward but has plenty of clever cinematic touches, including the way Pakula marks time with news footage that's always playing in the background, or the occasional flashy shot to emphasize the enormity of the conspiracy and the undertaking of these two guys in getting the whole story. It also really makes you believe in the crusading power of journalism, something that, as a journalist (albeit not the kind depicted in the movie) I wonder if even exists anymore. Really great filmmaking, the kind of thing I wish we saw more of in mainstream cinema today.

Living in Oblivion (Tom DiCillo, 1995)
Really a trifle of a film, but a fun look into the ridiculous world of low-budget filmmaking. DiCillo basically strung together three short films here, and it shows, as the movie is a little disjointed and unfocused. But Steve Buscemi is great as the harried director for whom nothing goes right, and Catherine Keener is awesome as always. A must-see for aspiring filmmakers; will easily turn you off to the idea of ever making a movie.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

New comics 11/17

Cable & Deadpool #9 (Fabian Nicieza/Patrick Zircher, Marvel)
I'm not sure if it's a good or bad thing, but in this issue Nicieza offers a twist that pulls back a bit from the Cable-as-messiah concept. On the one hand, it allows the book to continue past this storyline in a reasonable way, but on the other hand it sort of negates some of the philosophical ideas that Cable was exploring as self-appointed savior of the world. Still, I'm back liking this book, and I'm happy to see that this storyline will wrap up next issue and not be another six-parter, which was a little too much last time. Nicieza still has a good handle on Deadpool's wacky banter and makes good use of Marvel and X-Men continuity, so I'll keep reading.

Ex Machina #6 (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
Vaughan is really tackling a lot here, taking on gay marriage and school vouchers in this issue, as well as advancing a new mystery plot and providing more info on The Great Machine in a flashback. This is not as much of an adventure book as Y The Last Man or Runaways, which is maybe why I was less excited about it at first, but it's still got Vaughan's crisp dialogue and clever plotting, and this issue still ends with a nice little twist even if the characters aren't facing life-or-death situations or whatever. It's more low-key than Vaughan's other books, and more of a slow build, but it's got a lot of intrigue going on to keep my interest.

Kinetic #8 (Kelley Puckett/Warren Pleece, DC)
Man, what a let-down. I don't know what Puckett had originally planned, or how much time he was given to wrap things up, but this issue feels very rushed and forced. Given the insanely slow pacing of the early issues, there is a lot crammed in here, and while the ending is kind of a nice idea, it doesn't feel earned in any way. This was a book that had loads of promise at first and didn't get the chance it deserved to develop, so I can't really blame the creative team for how things turned out, but this is a very anti-climactic ending to what was once a really good comic.

Madrox #3 (Peter David/Pablo Raimondi, Marvel)
David continues to do interesting stuff with Madrox, and builds a strong noir mystery and a good supporting cast in the process. I really hope they let him continue beyond the mini-series, because this could be the best non-core X-book around if they let it become an ongoing series. David's always been good at balancing continuity and originality, and he takes off from stuff he was doing in X-Factor years ago without creating a barrier for new readers. He also builds nicely on the characters rather than having them rehash stuff they've already done. There's even a Bishop appearance that ties things in with District X, which does a nice job of showing the larger X-universe without coming off as oppressive. Raimondi's work remains very nice, and overall this is just a lot of fun to read.

The Pulse #6 (Brian Michael Bendis/Brent Anderson, Marvel)
Okay, what the hell? I get that this is tying in with Secret War and showing the same events from a different perspective, but it felt like there was maybe four panels' worth of original meterial in this issue. I suppose if you read this and not Secret War, it ensures you're kept in the loop, but they could have done just as well by putting a summary on the recap page. I like Secret War, and I liked the first storyline in this book, but this issue comes off as a total waste of time.

X-Men #164 (Chuck Austen/Salvador Larroca, Marvel)
Hallelujah, Austen is gone! That's really all I could think about this issue, which has the typical nonsensical and sloppy plotting and sudden developments that come out of nowhere. Xorn sucks all the bad guys (plus Nocturne and Juggernaut) into his brain? And then just wanders away? It's implied that Wolverine killed Sabretooth, just as Marvel is releasing a Sabretooth mini-series? And I have no idea what the twist at the end is supposed to mean. I guarantee that no other writer is going to follow up on any of this, which makes it all the more pointless and serves only to sweep all of Austen's characters and concepts under the rug. As much as I've disliked Austen's run on the book, that's not respectful of him or the readers who've endured all of the stuff he wrote. I hope Peter Milligan can come on board and make some sense of this mess, but I'm not optimistic.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Movies opening this week

National Treasure (Nicolas Cage, Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger, dir. John Turteltaub)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It's not even much fun to rip on Jerry Bruckheimer movies anymore. This one is barely even trying, and Nic Cage looks really tired. Wide release

Sideways (Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh, dir. Alexander Payne)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Man, I love Alexander Payne. This movie didn't quite blow me away as much as About Schmidt did, mainly because when I first saw About Schmidt I knew nearly nothing about it, and with this I'd been hearing the hype and the gushing reviews for months, and had been excited since first seeing the trailer since Payne and Giamatti were involved. So this was more a case of a slow-building appreciation, but I do think it's one of the best movies of the year. It's funny that so many of my favorite films this year - this, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Before Sunset, The Dreamers, even Spider-Man 2 in its own way - are heartfelt relationship dramas. Maybe it's something about what's in the water in Hollywood, or maybe it's just my subconscious yearning for the kind of passion that the characters in these films have, but these moving films about romance are definitely the stand-out films of the year. Pretty much every reviewer in the country has recommended seeing Sideways, so I'll only add my voice to the chorus, but it's worth saying again. And Payne is one of the top five or so American directors working today - I can't wait to see what he does next. Opened limited Oct. 22; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, November 15, 2004

Weekend viewing

Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
I really like the French New Wave, but sometimes I can't pinpoint exactly why. The influence on directors like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh is obvious, and there is just a sense of abandon and experimentation and pure joy in filmmaking that you don't often find elsewhere. When you get down to sitting and watching the films, though, they can at times be boring. This isn't about to become my favorite Godard film (still can't beat Breathless), but it was entertaining to watch and illuminating as far as its influence goes. I'm amazed that the scene of the three main characters running through the Louvre, famous as it is, lasts maybe 30 seconds. There was a feature on the DVD that meticulously explained all the literary and cinematic references, but I gave up after checking out two of them. A movie that needs to be explained in that much detail to be enjoyed isn't worth watching. This one certainly doesn't, and to have a narrator teach me about all the allusions seemed like a waste of my time. I had enough fun just sitting back and watching Godard let loose.

Miranda (Marc Munden, 2002)
I try to rent movies that enhance my knowledge of film history, or expand my appreciation for certain genres or the cinema of different countries or the works of a particular director, but sometimes I just rent a movie because it stars Christina Ricci as a sexy femme fatale. This was one of those times. I don't think this was ever released theatrically in the U.S., but an acquaintance recommended I see it. It's a pretty mediocre romantic thriller, but Christina is hott, and, although she's not naked, she has some loud sex and talks dirty. If you, like me, have a Christina Ricci fetish, this might be worth your time, but otherwise it's eminently forgettable.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

New comics 11/10

District X #7 (David Hine/Lan Medina, Marvel)
Wow, my interest in this book has really plummeted quickly. The first couple of issues were smart and innovative, doing stuff with mutants that explored new territory. But since then we've had a meandering, drawn out first arc, inconsistent art and some bland characterization. This issue isn't particularly bad, but it's just kind of mediocre and seems pretty directionless. No reason is given for Bishop staying in the district; he just seems to be hanging around randomly. The plot set-up is just a mish-mash of old X-Men concepts like the society of mutants living in the sewers and the mutant who can see a future that must be prevented. Even the cliffhanger ending didn't get me excited. The art is wholly generic, not even up to the standards Medina has set in his work on Fables and Aria in the past. I would say I miss David Yardin's work, but he's barely pencilled half the issues so far. I'll give it another issue or two, but given how many X-books and how many comics overall I'm buying, it would be easy to just let it go.

Fables #31 (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham, DC/Vertigo)
I reread the March of the Wooden Soldiers storyline in collected form last week for a review in Las Vegas Weekly, and it just re-emphasized for me how awesome this book is. That story in particular, drawn out as it was, read better in one sitting. In this issue, Willingham sets up some major changes, with Snow and Bigby both leaving Fabletown and Prince Charming taking over as mayor. I really hope this doesn't signal a shift in which characters the book will focus on, since I'd really miss seeing Snow and Bigby every month. But the sense of things moving forward is strong, and Willingham has really built up a touching relationship between Snow and Bigby. Buckingham proves again how perfect his art is for this book, and I'm always disappointed when I see a fill-in issue. I think between reading the collection and this issue, I've really come to appreciate this as one of the best books being published right now.

Ocean #2 (Warren Ellis/Chris Sprouse, DC/Wildstorm)
I passed up Ellis's first issue of Iron Man this week, partly for financial reasons but mostly because I just don't have any interest in his for-hire work on someone else's characters. I know he'll be off the book in a year or so anyway, and it's not really worth my time to get on-board. Instead, I'm really enjoying Ocean, which like most of Ellis's work has built slowly, but has a fascinating presence at its core and does a good job of exploring Ellis's obsession with space travel. We learn more in this issue about the strange bodies trapped below the icy surface of Europa, and even if the characters are still somewhat sketchy, the plot is enough to keep my interest.

X-Men: The End #5 (Chris Claremont/Sean Chen, Marvel)
Good lord this is boring. I feel ashamed for liking this series at the outset, when it had a certain driving plot force behind its sprawling, epic scope. But we haven't even seen the ostensible main character from the start (Aliyah Bishop) in the last two issues, and Claremont's only goal seems to be trotting out every single X-character who ever existed for a panel or two. The only enjoyment I'm getting out of it now is playing "spot the character," trying to see how much X-Men continuity I can remember so I can figure out who the latest obscure hero or villain to show up is. I have no idea what the plot is, who we're meant to care about, or where it's all going. This first volume is supposed to wrap up in the next issue, but I can't imagine a single question will be answered. What a wasted opportunity.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Movies opening this week

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, dir. Beeban Kidron)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Man, this one is getting torn apart by critics, for reasons I can understand but don't necessarily agree with. A fellow critic who bestowed zero stars on the film questioned my sanity last night for giving it a marginally positive review. But I stand by the assertion that, as another critic noted somewhere, if you liked the first one, you'll like this one, only less so. Opens limited this week; wide release next week

The Polar Express (Tom Hanks, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, dir. Robert Zemeckis)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
The other day someone took me to task for panning this movie, asserting that little kids will like it. Which, you know, no shit, but I have a problem with "little kids will like it" as praise for a movie. Little kids like eating dirt; that doesn't mean we should encourage them to do it. Little kids probably liked Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2, but that doesn't mean their parents should take them to see it. I can't believe I'm going to hold forth on the subject of parental responsibility, but here's the thing: You don't indulge your kids' desire to eat dirt just because "they like it." You know that eating dirt is bad, and you as an adult help the kid learn what is best for him/her. Likewise, you shouldn't take your kids to shitty movies just because "they'll like it." You as an adult should help the kid learn what a good movie is. It's not like there aren't good movies for kids. Take your spawn to The Incredibles or rent something like A Christmas Story or Elf if you really need a holiday movie this far before the holidays. Just don't encourage low standards for family films by patronizing crap like this. Wide release

Seed of Chucky (Brad Dourif, Jennifer Tilly, Billy Boyd, dir. Don Mancini)
I don't care what anyone thinks, I love Chucky movies. And I love Don Mancini for making his entire career out of writing Chucky movies and essentially nothing else, so I'm a little touched they finally let him direct. This movie is, of course, ridiculous and over the top and nonsensical and unnecessarily meta. But of course it's also hilarious for all those reasons, especially the awesome Jennifer Tilly making fun of her own image, Redman as a "rapper-director" making a biblical epic, Chucky jerking off, Chucky and Tiffany's kid thinking he/she is Japanese because of the "Made in Japan" label on his/her wrist, John Waters as a paparazzo, spurting blood straight out of Kill Bill Vol. 1, and so on and so on. You already know if you are going to like this movie, which may be why they didn't screen it for critics. But I don't care; I would have given it a great review if they'd let me see it in time. On a side note, there was a little girl of probably seven sitting next to me at the screening, asking her mom questions about Chucky's sperm, which just goes to show that any parents not taking their kids to insipid crap like The Polar Express are instead taking them to incredibly inappropriate R-rated movies about killer dolls. Hooray for America. Wide release

Monday, November 08, 2004

Weekend viewing

Bridget Jones's Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001)
A second viewing to prepare for reviewing the sequel this week. As with the first time, I quite enjoyed it. Romantic comedies are really easy to fuck up, since the audience is often undemanding and if you hit all the expected beats you don't really have to worry about sharp dialogue or well-drawn characters. So a good romantic comedy is a real treasure, and this is a good one. Renee Zellweger pulls of a really nice performance as Bridget, and this is a movie that's as funny as it is romantic, something a lot of rom-coms forget about. I still keep wanting Bridget to end up with Hugh Grant, though. Colin Firth is just so dour.

Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)
I hadn't seen a Bertolucci film before watching The Dreamers earlier this year, and I absolutely loved that one. It was a loving homage to the French New Wave, a sensual love story that was graphic without being exploitive, and an interesting exploration of the aesthetics of the 1960s. So I was excited to see Bertolucci's masterpiece, and after watching The Godfather a few weeks ago I was looking forward to one of Brando's best-known performances. Maybe my expectations got the best of me, but this was a tedious disappointment. The worst part is actually Brando's performance, which is so obviously improvised that it's like watching a second-rate acting student ramble on without any guidance from a teacher. Bertolucci uses all of the worst pretensions of the New Wave, like the annoying film "auteur" character who's engaged to Maria Schneider, the philosophical mumbo-jumbo about the meaning of life, and the random "tragic" ending. There are, in fact, many wonderfully elegant moments, including the titular tango, and the sex scenes are still pretty graphic even 30 years later, doing a good job of showing the rawness and vulnerability of the central affair. But Brando just overacts like crazy, and the movie rambles for two hours, and most of it is a waste of time.

Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1983)
You know, I consider myself something of a conoisseur of avant-garde and independent film. Maybe not as much as some, and lord knows I enjoy a good mindless Hollywood flick from time to time, but I think I can be a card-carrying member of the Pretentious Movie Club, as RJ calls it. However, I don't understand the appeal of this indie classic, Jarmusch's first film. I've heard so much about Jarmusch's brilliance but never seen anything he's done, and a co-worker recommended this as one of his best. It also seems like the beginning is a good place to start. But this movie is incredibly boring and populated with sketchily-drawn, not particularly likeable characters. It's about this New York hipster and his Romanian cousin, divided into three parts: In the first, they sit around his apartment in New York. In the second, he and a friend visit her in Cleveland. In the third, the trio take a trip to Florida. Not much happens, especially in the first part, which I guess does a good job of capturing the sheer boredom of sitting around doing nothing. The style is minimalist to a fault, with few cuts and little camera movement. The acting is flat, the story is non-existent, and, although the NetFlix sleeve claims it's a "black comedy," there really aren't any funny moments. Maybe I just didn't get it, but this movie bored the shit out of me.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

New comics 11/3

Astonishing X-Men #6 (Joss Whedon/John Cassaday, Marvel)
This book remains the best thing about the X-Men franchise right now. Whedon wraps things up a little too quickly in this issue, presumably to make for a cohesive TPB, but there is a new wrinkle introduced at the end that points to a more ongoing plot structure, and I really, really hope they find some way to convince Whedon to stay around for more than 12 issues to keep these plot threads going. Also to keep up the wonderful dialogue and characterization, which is miles ahead of what Austen and Claremont are doing on the other core books. Cassaday's art is strong as ever, and this just has to be the best mainstream superhero comic being published right now.

Captain America and the Falcon #9 (Christopher Priest/Joe Bennett, Marvel)
I'm glad that Priest isn't really abiding by the artificial "arc" structure and continuing to build on all the plot elements from early issues, but I'm kind of feeling at this point that the whole "Anti-Cap" saga needs to come to an end. However, as always, Priest's dense plotting is rewarding if you pay attention, and his MODOK is quite creepy despite the character's ridiculous look. Although I haven't been digging this book as much as Black Panther or The Crew, Priest is taking the Falcon in some interesting directions and slowly building up a cool supporting cast. Bennett's art gets the job done, and while it's not spectacular, I'll be sad to see him go in a few issues. I hope they can get someone better than Bart Sears to replace him.

Fallen Angel #17 (Peter David/David Lopez, DC)
A lot of things come to a head this issue, and it makes me want to go back and read the previous issues to really appreciate all the threads coming together. David shows Lee at her most cruel and her most vulnerable, and while I wasn't as shocked at the ending as some, it was a nice twist. Still, as some on-line have remarked, the whole character-getting-pregnant-only-to-lose-the-baby storyline is well-worn in TV shows and other serial media where you can't have a main character saddled with a baby. I'd like to think that David has something more original in mind, whether he gets rid of the baby or not, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

The Intimates #1 (Joe Casey/Giuseppe Camuncoli, DC/Wildstorm)
I wasn't planning to pick this one up, but it came in the DC publicity package, and after reading it I felt compelled to comment. I've always been kind of indifferent to Joe Casey's work - I couldn't stand his run on Cable, but that was probably at least as much thanks to Jose Ladronn's art, which just is not to my taste. His Uncanny X-Men run was mediocre at best, and even he's acknowledged that it wasn't his best work. His most respected stuff, in Wildcats, I've never read, so I can't say I have a strong opinion of him either way. I thought the idea of doing a teenage superhero book in a school for superheroes, and giving it that kind of cynical, Wildstorm twist, could be fun, but this is just an absolutely awful book. I'm sorry, I know it's gotten some critical praise elsewhere, and I respect Casey and Camuncoli for trying something innovative with the storytelling structure, but the whole thing is a complete train wreck. First of all, storytelling gimmicks aside, you need compelling characters at the core, and all we get here are ciphers. All the little info boxes and snarky asides and design tricks just serve to distract from the fact that there's no plot. Furthermore, the dialogue, the character names, the "hip" little tidbits in the info boxes, they all just scream "trying to be cool." I don't know how old Casey is, and I don't think he's a geezer by any stretch of the imagination, but reading this is like reading Chris Claremont's painful attempts at teen-speak. It's hard to get authentic-sounding vernacular in a story about youth culture, which is why the best idea is usually to stay away from it unless you've got a really, really good handle on teenage slang and attitudes. I'm only 24 and I would never try to write something that self-consciously sets itself up as this "edgy." It's really just painful to read, and I can't imagine how an actual teen would take it. It comes off as incredibly condescending and pedantic and cooler-than-thou, and the tone plus all the info boxes and digressions only distract from the story. Very ambitious, sure, but a complete failure.

Sylvia Faust #2 (Jason Henderson/Greg Scott, Image)
I'm still not sure what to think of this one. Some of it is more than a little confusing, but the central character is fun and I love the art, with the lack of panel borders and the simple color palette. A really striking look. Sylvia is some sort of other-dimensional princess or something, and I'm honestly not sure what the point is supposed to be, but mostly this issue is about her going on a date with her new boss and it has plenty of cute moments. I'll stick around for the rest of the mini to see if it makes sense in hindsight.

Uncanny X-Men #452 (Chris Claremont/Andy Park, Marvel)
What can I say? Claremont seems so adrift with this book. There's some really confusing plotting in this issue, as it appears that Emma and Rachel leave the rest of the team in the Hellfire Club's hideout only to jet off to Hong Kong for a party, Bishop either has developed an entirely new power or is an impostor (which Claremont just used like three issues ago!), there's a completely out-of-the-blue and out of character fight between Emma and Rachel, Wolverine's costume magically regenerates,'s silly to go on. These are just basic structural issues. At least the invasion of the Hellfire Club has the potential to be more interesting than the last couple of storylines, but it's just written so poorly that it almost doesn't matter. Park does a fine job with art that only sometimes falls into the generic Top Cow studio look that he started with, but it doesn't really have any stand-out moments.

Y The Last Man #28 (Brian K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra, DC/Vertigo)
After last issue's awesome cliffhanger, this one is invariably a let-down of sorts, as Vaughan is left picking up the pieces and moving the story forward. There are still plenty of suspenseful elements, though, including the mysterious assassin stalking Yorick, the reappearance of Hero and Yorick's strange illness. The best is that Vaughan takes a long-running mystery (from back in one of the first few issues, I believe) and resolves it in a really unexpected way, leaving some of the mystery intact while allowing the story to move forward. After 28 issues, I still have no idea where this is going and it consistently has great "holy shit!" moments, and that's damn impressive.

Movies opening this week

The Incredibles (Voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, dir. Brad Bird)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
There really isn't anything to add to the chorus of praise for this movie. I think the most interesting thing, though, is the way that a project worked on by literally hundreds of crew members can be so clearly the vision of one person (Brad Bird, the writer-director). I think between this and Sky Captain we are moving into an era where CGI is so commonplace and (relatively) affordable that studios are able to trust artists to make CG films rather than relying solely on committees. Even Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express, which is not a good movie (review coming next week), is his own vision. When a big-name director like Zemeckis will take on a CG project, you know it's because he's been afforded creative control. Whether this trend produces high-quality material (like The Incredibles and Sky Captain) or standard Hollywood crap (The Polar Express), I am always in favor of granting more creative control to actual creators. Wide release

Primer (Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, dir. Shane Carruth)
I saw this back in June at CineVegas but it's finally making its way to Vegas in regular release. This was one of the films I was most excited to see at the festival, since it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and is billed as an intelligent, low-budget genre picture. Which it is, I guess, but I was really disappointed with what I saw. I think this is one of those movies that people claim to like even though they don't understand it because they want to seem smart. People talk about its complete incomprehensibility as a virtue, but I don't buy it.

The plot, once you figure it out, is really cool: These two geeky engineers accidentally build a sort of time machine in their garage and start using it to make money on the stock market. That sounds pretty simple, but Carruth is all about obfuscation, spending the first half hour on nothing but techno-babble. Even that I could buy into, though, because eventually you can figure out from context what's going on, and I have no problem with a film that refuses to talk down to its audience. The problem comes later, in the plotting, when doubles of the two main characters are running around all over the place, and some tragic event occurs that needs to be prevented. There are moments that seem like they should be some sort of big reveal but it's never clear what's going on. Honestly, this is just sloppy plotting passed off as sophistication. The rabid fans who claim that you need to see it multiple times to get it are just fooling themselves. I will grant that Carruth has a cool visual style and some good ideas, but he's way too into his own supposed cleverness. Opened limited Oct. 8; in Las Vegas this week

Sunday, October 31, 2004

TV update

Drawn Together (Comedy Central, Wednesdays, 10:30 pm)
I really will watch nearly anything, as evidenced by my (barely) sitting through this really bad animated reality-show parody. The idea is kind of funny: A bunch of cartoon-character stereotypes (rip-offs of Superman, Pikachu, Betty Boop, Porky Pig, Josie of Pussycats fame, a Disney princess, SpongeBob SquarePants and some sort of video game character) shack up in a house reminiscent of The Real World. If the show focused more on parodying the typical antics of reality-show contestants (which it half-heartedly does to middling success) instead of engaging in lame, vulgar humor, it might be funny. Instead, we get the pig character, voiced by comedic genius Adam Carolla, defecating in various receptacles. This is the show's top running gag: Where will the pig shit next? Ugh.

LAX (NBC, Wednesdays, 8 pm)
As it's gotten to the point in the season where I realize I can't possibly keep watching all the shows I started with, I've given up on this one. I was sort of ready to do it anyway, since while I liked a lot of what they were doing, they weren't able to settle on a consistent tone or level of quality. But NBC's moving it Wednesdays opposite Lost, which is the best new show of the season, just sealed the deal. There's no way I'm going to go out of my way to tape a show I'm not that interested in in the first place. I didn't even watch the last episode in the old time slot, which tells you how dedicated I wasn't. Still, it'd be nice to see the show succeed, since it's better than most of the other crap out there, and network TV in general would be poorer without Heather Locklear on the air.

Life as We Know It (ABC, Thursdays, 9 pm)
I've also given up on this one, which I never really liked in the first place, but kept watching because I wanted to see if it would eventually justify the critical buzz. It hasn't. Just another bland, predictable teen drama, with mediocre acting and disappointingly pedestrian writing, especially since the creators are former Freaks & Geeks staffers. Even the appearance of former Freaks & Geeks star Samm Levine in the last episode couldn't save it. Really this season's biggest let-down as far as I'm concerned.

South Park (Comedy Central, Wednesdays, 10 pm)
A good start to the latest season, with a political soapbox episode that also manages to be pretty funny. The parody of P. Diddy's "Vote or Die" nonsense was totally spot-on, and the message about the over-emphasis on voting, while seen as irresponsible by some, was something I definitely agreed with. This show has been really hit-or-miss for a while now, but this one was a hit and bodes well for the latest batch of new episodes.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Movies opening this week

Birth (Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, dir. Jonathan Glazer)
This one appears to be a love-it or hate-it film. My colleague at the Weekly who reviewed it hated it, but I actually found it quite compelling. Nicole Kidman plays a woman whose husband died ten years ago and is only now able to move on, getting engaged to another man (Huston). Just as it seems she's comes to terms with her grief, a little boy (Bright, perhaps the creepiest kid in film today) comes along and claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. Wackiness ensues.

Well, not so much wackiness as confusion, anger, hurt and disgust, in varying degrees on the parts of the principal characters. The premise is, indeed, a little tough to swallow, and you have to wonder about the bathtub scene between Kidman and Bright. But this is a really well-made attempt at what might be a questionable idea, and I think it has something interesting to say despite its flaws. Kidman is awesome at convincing the audience of the depths of her grief and love, so much so that she could fall in love with a 10-year-old boy based mostly on faith. Bright, who has cornered the market on creepy-possibly-evil kids with The Butterfly Effect and Godsend, does what he does effectively. The production design and cinematography are perfect, capturing the alienation in clean, cold urban spaces. The film has a lot in common with Rosemary's Baby, not limited to Kidman's haircut. There's the urban isolation, the invasion of the supernatural into a calm everyday life, the reconciliation between the fantastic and the mundane. The ultimate explanation for what's going on is a little disappointing, but this is a film that really explores the sometimes devastating powers of love and grief in a unique way. Wide release

Ray (Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, dir. Taylor Hackford)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I really do think Jamie Foxx will get an Oscar for this, unless there's some really exceptional and high-profile acting in something that comes out in the next two months. I'm fine with that, too - he gives a great performance, and really is a good actor. His subdued performance in Collateral might even be better, but it's too low-key for the Oscars, especially when there's a showy performance like this to reward instead. The movie, alas, is very conventional, but I think there are enough positives to recommend it. Wide release

Saw (Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Danny Glover, dir. James Wan)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I think people are too starved for good horror movies and they're overrating this one. It's a really showy, vapid movie, and its only assets are some decent set-pieces. It'll probably make good money around Halloween, but you're better off renting Seven or Silence of the Lambs and staying home. Wide release