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