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