Monday, January 31, 2005

Weekend viewing

All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
Sometimes I watch a classic movie and wonder to myself, "What the hell is wrong with me that I haven't seen this movie before?" This was definitely one of those times. I am trying hard to play catch-up and broaden my knowledge of film history and genre as much as possible, so I'm sure I'll end up with many more of those moments, but once I get past feeling stupid, it's a great feeling to discover an absolutely wonderful film. It was interesting to me that Mankiewicz both wrote and directed, which was apparently fairly common for him, since I thought that was a pretty rare practice until the late 1960s, at least in Hollywood cinema. Whatever the reason, he does a great job with both; this film has one of the sharpest screenplays I've ever seen. The dialogue is so crisp and cutting, and so many of the throwaway lines are perfect deadpan one-liners. Of course it helps to have such a talented cast, mainly the sublime Bette Davis and the droll George Sanders (who won an Oscar for his role). The females are generally better than the males - the two male leads, Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe, are pretty much just generic square-jawed 1950s leading men. But they still do well enough, and the rest of the cast is superb. The story skates comedy and drama perfectly, and is surprisingly relevant even today in its comments on aging in the spotlight. Pretty much a flawless film, and wonderfully entertaining. It also definitely illuminated some things about Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother, which I saw a few months ago. Almodovar takes Eve's lesbian subtext and makes it explicit, and actually comes up with a much softer, kinder story in the end.

Dig (Ondi Timoner, 2004)
My friend Jason raved about this film, which won the documentary prize at Sundance last year. It's definitely a fascinating rock documentary, an interesting companion to Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, which looks at what dysfunctional musicians do with way too much money and success. This film looks at dysfunctional musicians with no money and no success, specifically psychedelic rockers the Brian Jonestown Massacre. The train wreck of megalomaniacal BJM leader Anton Newcombe is mesmerizing, and Timoner stands back and allows him to hang himself with his own rope as he treats his band members like shit, blows record deals, acts like an asshole and indulges in heroin abuse. She also allows him to demonstrate his clear talent, and what emerges is a clear and well-rounded portrait of a genius who absolutely cannot function in society. The problem is that that is only about two thirds of the film; the other third is devoted to the Dandy Warhols, friends and sometime rivals of the BJM who have a similar sound but much more success and stability. Timoner is way too kind to the Dandys, painting them as these stable, happy people with a relatively easy road to success. And while they are certainly stable and successful in contrast to the BJM, they clearly have their own ego issues (especially frontman Courtney Taylor, who undermines the film's objectivity by serving as narrator) and never achieve the heights of success they hope for when they first get signed. Popular in Europe but still fairly obscure in the U.S., the Dandys are only a modest success. The free pass Timoner gives the Dandys doesn't ruin the film by any means, but it does taint her objectivity and make it look unfortunately like she's playing favorites.

Thesis (Alejandro Amenabar, 1996)
Amenabar, who is all over the place right now for directing The Sea Inside (which I have yet to see), started with horror movies, and this was his first. It's got some hallmarks of being low budget and the work of a neophyte director, but it's still an effective thriller with some good scares. The plot, which traces an underground network of snuff films, is actually quite similar to the awful Joel Schumacher film 8MM, only done in a much less ham-handed and cheesy way. There are perhaps one too many twists, but it's got a neat (if unsubtle) critique on violence in the media, and some interesting characters. A solid first effort, and indicative of how well he'd create scares later in The Others (and presumably also Open Your Eyes, which I haven't seen). Although The Sea Inside has gotten rave reviews, it's obviously one of those tearjerking inspirational dramas, and it always disappoints me a little when good horror directors leave behind their roots as soon as they achieve some success. I hope Amenabar gets back to the genre eventually, because he's clearly good at it. If there's one thing cinema needs more of right now, it's talented and intelligent horror filmmakers.

New comics 1/26

Planetary #22 (Warren Ellis/John Cassaday, DC/Wildstorm)
Once again I have only a vague recollection of what happened in the last issue, and almost no recollection of what the ongoing storyline is, but it doesn't really matter. Ellis is back to doing pulp pastiches, as here he posits particularly nasty versions of the Lone Ranger and The Shadow. It's some good stuff, although I kind of liked last issue's drug trip a little better. That one gave Cassaday a better chance to shine, although of course he does his usual excellent work here. Snow's evocation of the Nautilus and what happened there at the end of the issue would have far more meaning for me if I remembered what he was referring to, but at this point I don't worry about it. A long time ago Ellis said this series would run about 24 issues; it's hard to imagine it wrapping up that quickly, but I'd guess that there aren't that many issues left to go. Once it all ends, I'll read the whole thing through from beginning to end and I'm sure it'll make much more sense.

Uncanny X-Men #454 (Chris Claremont/Andy Park, Marvel)
I'm not sure why I even bother reviewing this every month, since I end up saying pretty much the same thing every time. This isn't the most egregiously bad issue in recent memory, but it's thoroughly forgettable, and hinges on the idea that Sage is this awesome badass of a character, when Claremont has never given us a single reason to care about her. Otherwise, this is all rote fight scenes and overblown dialogue as usual, and Park's art is merely serviceable. Since this is the end of this storyline, Alan Davis should be back on art for the next issue, so that will be one thing (and probably the only thing) to look forward to.

We3 #3 (Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely, DC/Vertigo)
The excellent mini-series wraps up in excellent fashion; this is definitely one of the best and most innovative comics I've read in quite some time. I'm kind of indifferent to all of the DCU stuff Morrison is set to do (All-Star Superman, Seven Soldiers), but I'll definitely be picking up Vimanarama to see if he can tell another short story as good as this one. The great thing about We3 is that, for all the experimental storytelling that Quitely does (which is truly remarkable), at its core it's a pretty straightforward story. This issue, with the climax, has a lot more splash pages and traditional panel layouts, although there is still plenty of the altered perspective that Quitely has been working with. I think Morrison is best when he sticks to one idea, as he does here, and doesn't try to include every crazy idea he ever had in a single story (as he did in Marvel Boy and in "Here Comes Tomorrow" in New X-Men, to name two examples of stuff of his that I've read). Regardless, this is the best Morrison work I've ever read, and just one of the finest examples of moving, powerful comics storytelling by anyone in the past few years.

Y The Last Man #30 (Bryan K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra, DC/Vertigo)
I like that we've found out how Yorick survived the plague by issue 30, that it's not dragged out until the end of the series, when it would inevitably be a disappointment. I also like that the explanation is relatively simple and unglamorous, kind of heading off the expectations right there. The story isn't about why Yorick survived; it's about what happened afterward, and Vaughan is wise to get it out of the way now so he can focus on other things. There's another cliffhanger, not quite as good as last issue's but still suspenseful, and again the wonderful sense that things are always moving forward, that no one and nothing is safe and you never know what will happen next. That's the best thing about this book and about Vaughan's writing, and 30 issues in, it's still just as exciting.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Movies opening this week

Hide and Seek (Robert De Niro, Dakota Fanning, Famke Janssen, dir. John Polson)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I don't really need to add anything about this movie; it's a lame horror movie with a predictable twist ending that still doesn't make much sense given what's come before it. The only thing that makes it notable is the presence of Robert De Niro, who's taken a lot of recent heat for making bad movies. I definitely think his last few films (Meet the Fockers, Shark Tale, Godsend) have been pretty terrible, but I have a co-worker who's a staunch De Niro apologist. He argues that the guy just wants to work, and what's wrong with his taking roles that are offered to him? I certainly understand the idea that De Niro wants to keep acting. As much as some people might like it, he's not obligated to freeze himself in time as Travis Bickle, or Vito Corleone, or any of his famous roles. It was fine when he started to do comedy, too; Meet the Parents and Analyze This were funny enough, if not exactly classics. But he seems to have lost his way here, and he can only make fun of himself so often before his default persona becomes a self-parody. He's now done at least five movies mocking his image (the two Analyze movies, the two Meet movies, and Shark Tale), and it's time to put that to rest. Worse than the comedies are the horror movies like this and Godsend, though, for which there is no excuse. It's hard to imagine a specific joy or challenge he got out of playing these roles. He's got a lot of power and clout, and I'm sure he has the luxury of choosing his roles. If he just wants to act, I guarantee there are tons of young, struggling directors who would kill to have Robert De Niro in their movies. Why not take a small role in an indie film, or even a lead role? Certainly that would be new, working with a young director in a small production over these bloated Hollywood machines he's in now. His future does look a little brighter: The rumored Taxi Driver sequel seems highly dubious to me, but it could turn out well, and at least it wouldn't be hack work. His next directorial project, the CIA history film with Matt Damon, shows definite promise. So maybe these kinds of movies are just bumps in the road, but they don't help his reputation. Wide release

Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, dir. Clint Eastwood)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I realize I am in a small but vocal minority on this, but I was not impressed with this movie. I didn't hate it - unlike Finding Neverland, which I think is wholly undeserving of the accolades it's received, this has a number of strong points - but I do think it's been wildly overrated and I can't quite understand why. The script is pure cornball until the twist, after which it is quite sentimental and still corny in a more melancholy way. The performances are good, but they're all variations on parts the actors have done before. The look is murky and indistinct, and the whole thing appears to take place in some insular world where no one outside of Frankie's gym really exists. I think if you go into this film not expecting much, you might enjoy it, but the high expectations created by all the glowing reviews and awards mean that a lot of people are going to come away disappointed. Opened limited Dec. 15; in Las Vegas this week

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Oscar nominations

Every film critic and film buff gripes about the Oscars, but it's really pointless. This year's nominations were no different than most years': Mostly safe, middle-of-the-road prestige pictures, with a few notable surprises and a few notable snubs. The Oscars are never going to turn into a film snob's paradise, nor are they ever going to recognize off-beat, challenging critics' darlings in more than token fashion. So I'm not going to bother airing my grievances, which are obvious (Finding Neverland is ridiculously overrated, Giamatti was robbed, Eternal Sunshine got almost none of the recognition it deserved, the Best Original Song nominations all suck, etc.) and instead, for once, focus on the positive. These are a few of the pleasant surprises, as far as I'm concerned:

Catalina Sandino Moreno for Best Actress in Maria Full of Grace: This was a really well-made but little-seen film, a look at the consequences of the drug trade that didn't moralize either for or against drugs, just told a focused and character-based story about one girl's dreams to make something better of her life and what she would do to achieve them. Moreno perfectly captured that girl and her journey, and it's wonderful to see her get some recognition, which hopefully will in turn drive more people to see this movie.

Mike Leigh for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director for Vera Drake: It seemed like a given that Imelda Staunton would get an acting nomination (and it's great that she did), but Leigh's two nominations were a nice surprise, even though he's been nominated in the past. This is another movie that takes on a complex social issue through the eyes of a single character and focuses on how it affects her life and the lives of those around her more than on its broader social implications. It's a heartbreaking film that deserves to be seen (it still hasn't opened here in Vegas), and again I hope that the nominations inspire more people to seek it out.

Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for Best Adapted Screenplay for Before Sunset: I'm not quite sure why this is considered adapted (I guess because it's a sequel), but if being in that category allowed it the nomination, I'm happy. This is a film that should easily have been in the Best Picture category, maddeningly overlooked by other awards shows and critics' groups as well, and any recognition it gets makes me very happy. Almost more than any other movie released in 2004, this is one I want to convince people to see (my pick for best film of the year, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is much more widely known). I don't know how much momentum a single nomination in a writing category can give a film, but it deserves anything it can get.

Brad Bird for Best Original Screenplay for The Incredibles: Nice to see an animated film get recognized in a general category, and it couldn't go to a more deserving film. It's a joke to see this in the Animated Feature category with such weightless crap as Shrek 2 and Shark Tale; if it doesn't win that award, Academy members really must be morons.

No nominations for Fahrenheit 9/11: Not so much a surprise, since Moore taking it out of the documentary category virtually guaranteed a lock-out, but I'm still glad that the Academy didn't fall for the same trick that the Cannes jury did last year and think that it's a brilliant film. It's a relatively well-made polemic, and undoubtedly it would have won the documentary category had it been entered, but I'm happy to see that the show, which is about a celebration of movie-making, won't get overshadowed by divisive politics (whether I agree with them or not).

Full list of nominees

Monday, January 24, 2005

Weekend viewing

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)
I really like Westerns in theory, but I seem to have trouble getting into them whenever I actually watch one. This is obviously one of the classics - called by some the greatest Western ever made. It's quite long (nearly three hours) and very slow, especially in the first hour, and initially I was a little bored and impatient with it. But once the story picks up and you get to know the characters better, it's fascinating, and it's got both great action (the three-way stand-off at the end is fantastic) and interesting social commentary. The three main characters are on the trail of a buried treasure during the Civil War, and while this incredibly important and divisive battle rages around them, they couldn't care less, treating it as little more than a nuisance. I don't think I've seen another film that treats the Civil War this way - it's generally regarded as such an important part of American history that no one seems willing to dare trivializing it. Of course, Leone's not American, and the film doesn't really trivialize the war, just shows it from a different perspective. The three bandits alternately align themselves with the Confederates and the Union whenever it's convenient, and none of the frontier settlers seems to much care who wins the war, as long as they profit from it. It's a very interesting take on it.

Pumpkin (Anthony Abrams & Adam Larson Broder, 2002)
I think it's time to admit that I have a problem: I am obsessed with Christina Ricci. How else can I justify watching this lame excuse for a black comedy, which is neither funny nor particularly satirical, is painfully long, meanders all over the place and totally miscasts Ricci as a perky sorority girl? I totally can't. I'm sorry. I need help.

New comics 1/19

Cable & Deadpool #11 (Fabian Nicieza/Patrick Zircher, Marvel)
Nicieza continues to write a very entertaining book, one of the best reads in the bloated X-Men line. There's plenty of humor in this issue, with Deadpool getting in some good lines, and the amusing device of Cable's thoughts being rendered as cute cartoon characters. This also reads like an old-school serial, meaning that just because we have a new storyline it doesn't mean that Nicieza's hit the reset button. Far from it; each issue builds on the last, and there's a good sense of momentum and motivation. If only they could get some of the other X-books to read this well.

Madrox #5 (Peter David/Pablo Raimondi, Marvel)
Wow, two quality X-books in one week. It's like a miracle. David's mini-series wraps up in a satisfying fashion while leaving things open for what seems to be an inevitable ongoing series, re-launching X-Factor centered around Madrox's detective agency. I'd love to see David continue the adventures of Madrox, Strong Guy and Wolfsbane, especially if he can bring in some other characters from his old X-Factor run or just some other C-level X-characters to spice things up. It'd be even better if they signed Raimondi back up to do the art. Sad to see this end, but hopeful that something even better will come out of it.

Powers #8 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Avon Oeming, Marvel/Icon)
Although I've been disappointed with some of Bendis's recent work, I'm still enjoying this, and this new storyline is another effective mystery in the style of the early days of the first volume. The two ongoing subplots - Walker training the new Retro Girl and Deena's newfound powers - are pushed aside for this issue, but I have confidence that they'll keep building and that they'll pay off in interesting ways. This is the book that keeps my Bendis faith alive.

Tabloia #572-574 (Chris Wisnia, Salt Peter Press)
Wisnia is the co-artist on Sam Kieth's Ojo, and e-mailed me to ask if I'd review his self-published comic (note to other indie creators: I am always happy to accept review copies of comics). Despite their numbers, these are the first three issues of Tabloia, I believe; it's set up to look like a sensationalistic tabloid, a la the Weekly World News or some such, that's been publishing for years. These particular issues are not among this week's new comics, but were all out in recent months. The primary content is the first three parts of Wisnia's six-part thriller called "The Lump," which is quite good. It's a sort of Seven-style murder mystery mixed with some supernatural or pseudo-science undertones (it's still not quite clear). I thought some of the art on Ojo looked sketchy and rushed, but here Wisnia's art is better, with thick inking that enhances the noir feel and good use of shadows. The back-up features are less entertaining, with each essentially riding on one joke. "Dick Hammer: Conservative Republican Private Investigator" is exactly what it sounds like, a Sam Spade-style detective who spouts silly-sounding conservative viewpoints. "Dr. DeBunko" is a supernatural investigator who uses his powers of deduction to debunk the phenomena he investigates. He's kind of like the anti-Agent Mulder; he doesn't want to believe. And "Doris Danger" is an homage to old giant monster comics, inked by Dick Ayers, whose main appeal is its deliberately nonsensical plot twists and silly monster names like "Spluhh" and "Fuggabluh." There are also some nice pin-ups by big names including Mike Allred, Bill Sienkiewicz and Gene Colan. The production design is also impressive, with a dedication to the idea that it's a sleazy tabloid, and, most importantly, no typos (one of my pet peeves in low-budget comics). Worth checking out primarily for "The Lump," or at least watching for that story if it's ever collected. You can get more info here.

X-Men #166 (Peter Milligan/Salvador Larroca, Marvel)
After Cable & Deadpool and Madrox, this was kind of a disappointment, although admittedly not quite as bad as what Chuck Austen had been doing and what Chris Claremont is still doing. Milligan starts his run with a perfectly average X-Men story that doesn't break any new ground or do anything remotely interesting, and it's executed mainly with competence. That's about as excited as I can get for this story of the X-Men investigating a mutant community in Antarctica that's been attacked or overrun by a mysterious antagonist. Some of the storytelling is confusing, but mostly it gets its point across, and Milligan deals with the characterization that Austen left behind without taking it ridiculously over the top like Austen did. Larroca's art looks a little blurry, although that may be the fault of the coloring or even the production. There are a few creepy moments, but overall this is an inauspicious start to Milligan's run on the book.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Movies opening this week

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, dir. Niels Mueller)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I saw this movie what seems like eons ago, back in the haze of pre-awards season when I was seeing like 4-5 new releases a week. It was probably more like a month and a half ago, but honestly the film was so unimpressive that I have nothing new to say. I wrote the linked review at least two weeks ago, too, so even what I did have to say back then is gone. It's a mediocre movie with a very good performance by Sean Penn; that's all, really. Opened limited Dec. 29; in Las Vegas this week

Hotel Rwanda (Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, dir. Terry George)
This is one of those movies that is so well-intentioned that it defies all criticism, and anything negative I might say about it will be viewed by some as grossly insensitive to the Rwandan genocide. But while this is undoubtedly an emotionally affecting film, it's also a phenomenally emotionally manipulative film, tugging on your heartstrings with time-honored tricks as surely as any other melodramatic weepie. As one critic pointed out, how can you watch children getting massacred and not get at least a little choked up? Achieving that effect is not the same as making a good movie. Not that I think this is a bad movie; it's just a very obvious and somewhat heavy-handed one, addressing an important issue in a clumsy way and glossing over its technical blandness by distracting you with little kids in peril. Honestly, I found the film at times quite boring; despite the incredible real danger of the Rwandan genocide, there is no sense of danger to the movie, since you know exactly who will live and who will die, and how everything will work out. Joaquin Phoenix's character notes that Westerners will look at news footage of Rwanda, say "Oh, that's horrible," and go on eating their dinner. The movie, with the way it placates viewers by equating seeing the film with doing something positive about Rwanda, is likely to have the same effect. Opened limited Dec. 22; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, January 17, 2005

Vacation viewing

I had last week off to sit around and do nothing (my favorite pastime), but I didn't watch nearly as many movies as I would have liked. Here's what I did get around to, in between sleeping and, uh, sleeping.

Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
I am sure a sucker for these French art movies, and this is as French and arty as they come. My first exposure to Denis' work, although I'll definitely be seeking out more. (What I really want to see is her art-house vampire movie Trouble Every Day, starring Vincent Gallo, but it's not out on DVD.) Apparently this is very loosely based on Herman Melville's Billy Budd, which I read in high school, but the only thing I can remember about Billy Budd is that it took place on a boat. Beau Travail takes place on a French Foreign Legion base in Djibouti, where shirtless men idle away their days doing combat training and strangely hypnotic calisthenics that are far too choreographed to be actual military exercises. There are long, languid stretches with no dialogue, and what little story there is (a dark rumination on jealousy) is sketchy and almost incidental to the images of the toned men performing ritualistic exercises as confused African women look on, bemused. Yes, it's highly homoerotic, but it's also surprisingly beautiful, like watching modern dance. Some critics say this is a profound meditation on masculinity, and maybe it is, but I just found its poetic imagery haunting.

8 Mile (Curtis Hanson, 2002)
I'm sure I had a knee-jerk aversion to a movie starring Eminem when this first came out, but some critical acclaim and recommendations from friends actually had me looking forward to seeing it. Strangely enough, then, I ended up disappointed, since my heightened expectations were dashed by what is little more than a standard "follow your dreams" movie with some extra grit and swear words. It's a decent take on that old genre, but it's nothing outstanding, and Kim Basinger is just terrible with her bad accent and shrill delivery as Eminem's mom. The rap battles are the best part, especially at the end when the actual drama of the story plays out in the lyrics, like a musical, but there aren't enough of them, and the middle of the film drags considerably. A letdown, which is not something I'd ever expect to say about a movie starring Eminem.

Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)
I had a tough time getting into this at first, but once the story gets to the Dupea island estate, I was hooked, and the tense family drama is brilliantly acted, especially by two actresses with whom I was not familiar - Lois Smith as Bobby's sister, and Susan Anspach as his brother's girlfriend. Jack Nicholson, of course, is great as always as Bobby, and the tension between the expectations his family has for him and the way he chooses to live his life is played out with both violence and tenderness. It's quintessential 70s cinema, with a plot that meanders and an ending that leaves much unsaid, but along the way it creates rich characters whose flaws are as fascinating as their virtues. I imagine this is the kind of film Alexander Payne looks up to, and you can see the way it influenced his style, especially in the road trip scenes that are echoed in similar sequences in About Schmidt and Sideways.

My Architect (Nathaniel Kahn, 2003)
I've had this sitting next to my TV for almost a year now, and I'm glad that I finally got around to watching it, because it was terrific. I feel like my eyes were opened to a whole new genre of filmmaking when I saw Ross McElwee's Sherman's March a while back, and this is much in the same vein. You can see a clear line from Sherman's March (made in 1986) to this and to Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation from 2004. The idea of using filmmaking as a tool to deal with personal turmoil, not by writing an autobiographical drama but by actually turning the camera on yourself and your own life, is fascinating to me, and I really would love to see more examples of this type of film. Sadly, none of McElwee's other films are on DVD, and his latest, Bright Leaves, never made it to Vegas. It seems to me that there is so much rich territory to be explored in this genre, to turn the documentary into something like a visual memoir, and perhaps the success of Tarnation will open doors for more of that.

As for this particular film, it focuses on Nathaniel's quest to understand his father, renowned architect Louis I. Kahn, who died when Nathaniel was only 11 and never acknowledged his son's existence officially, since Nathaniel was born a bastard child to one of Kahn's mistresses. By both probing his father's artistic legacy by visiting his famous buildings and talking to architects and scholars, and examining his own fractured family, Nathaniel attempts to come to an understanding of how someone who was thought to be such a genius could have been such a shitty father. Although the film has its flaws - Nathaniel is a clumsy interviewer, and often seems to keep his own feelings at a distance - it is powerful and moving and captivating, and, to me at least, eye-opening about the possibilities of both a medium (film) and a genre (documentary) that are sometimes too rigidly defined. As McElwee and Kahn and certainly Caouette have proved, what some might consider simply home movies can become beautiful pieces of art in the right hands.

Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973)
I am late to the game discovering Bogdanovich, so it's disappointing to me to realize that he apparently made three great films in the 70s (this, The Last Picture Show and What's Up, Doc?) and then made a string of failures before being relegated to shooting made-for-TV docudramas. I loved The Last Picture Show, with its layered characters, gorgeous black and white cinematography and bittersweet evocation of small town life, and I loved Bogdanovich's brief comeback, 2001's The Cat's Meow, which is a criminally underrated period comedy that captures 1920s Hollywood in all its hedonistic glory and features one of Kirsten Dunst's best performances. Paper Moon is another sheer joy, with the same gorgeous black and white photography as The Last Picture Show, and the same deft period comedy (although in a different period) as The Cat's Meow. A Depression-era road movie that plays like the comedic version of The Grapes of Wrath, it's got these amazing long takes and sharp performances by Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, two actors who are not exactly on top of Hollywood anymore. Bogdanovich, with his ridiculous ascot, is also engrossing on the extra features on the DVD, and his love of film history comes through in every aspect of the movie. I've got What's Up, Doc? in my NetFlix queue now, and if anyone is reading and knows what, if any, of Bogdanovich's later, lesser-known films are worth seeing, I'd love suggestions.

Stage Beauty (Richard Eyre, 2004)
Watched almost out of obligation more than anything else, as this was one of the few awards screeners I had lying around that I hadn't yet seen. Thoroughly bland story of the last male actor to play female parts on the English stage in the 1600s, and the female who took his place when the ban on actresses was lifted. This should have a light, literate feel like Shakespeare in Love, but it doesn't seem to be able to decide whether to be serious or comedic, and Billy Crudup and Claire Danes are mismatched and chemistry-free as the leads.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

New comics 1/12

Captain America & The Falcon #11 (Christopher Priest/Joe Bennett, Marvel)
It's definitely a bad sign when half of the events on the "Previously" page are completely new to me. Priest's writing is always complex, but I think this book has recently gone over the edge into needlessly convoluted. That said, once I read the previouslies and had a better understanding of what had gone on in recent issues, this one was relatively easy to follow. At this point, though, I'll be happy to see this storyline wrapped up and something new starting without so much baggage.

Fables #33 (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham, DC/Vertigo)
First off, this issue has an especially beautiful James Jean cover; the covers are always great, but this one just has this really haunting, ethereal quality that I love. What's inside is pretty good, too; Willingham wraps up the mysterious killer subplot in an unexpected (for me, at least) and effective way without resorting to anything too over-the-top. This is kind of a quiet issue, even though we find out about the killer, and it looks like the calm before the storm of another big story brewing come next issue. I'm excited to see what's next.

The Pulse #7 (Brian Michael Bendis/Brent Anderson, Marvel)
At least this was better than the last issue, but that's not saying much. We get to some new material, but it basically just amounts to Jessica wandering around and whining about not knowing what's going on. It feels a little out of character for her to be so helpless, and again very little actually happens in this issue to move things forward. It's also annoying that Bendis isn't really bothering to tell a new story here, instead just moving around the periphery of the Secret War series (which, for the record, I do like, even if it hasn't gotten great reviews and ships horribly late). Anderson's art also looks a little too sketchy and rushed; I believe this is his last issue, so maybe he was in a hurry to leave. Overall Bendis' Marvel stuff has been quite unimpressive lately.

Two Bits #1 (Various, Image)
I'll pick up almost anything for 25 cents, so I was willing to give this a shot. It's preview stories for two new series from Mike S. Miller's Alias Enterprises, both fantasy-type stories aimed at an all-ages audience. While each had strong points, I probably won't be picking up the regular issues. Miller's own creation, The Imaginaries, seemed like it had more promise, with the concept of a land populated by imaginary friends that children no longer believe in. Greg Titus' art, with a kind of urban/grafitti look, would seem like an odd fit, but it works well for the strange creatures that Miller has created. The other series, Lullaby, is less interesting in concept, as it appears to just be a sort of tweaking of the Alice in Wonderland story, but the art by Hector Sevilla is stunning and amazingly detailed. It'd almost be worth picking up the series for his work alone, as he creates a lush and fully-realized fantasy world for the main character. The art in this preview is just uninked pencils; I think both series will probably look better in color, and might be worth a look for fans of fantasy or all-ages books. For me there just wasn't enough to get me to plunk down standard cover price for the regular series.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Movies opening this week

Elektra (Jennifer Garner, Terence Stamp, Goran Visnjic, dir. Rob Bowman)
Not as bad as I expected after reading some pretty brutal reviews, but not exactly good either. I love Jennifer Garner on Alias, but I kind of think this was the wrong choice for her, because all it does is cement her typecasting as an action badass. Far better for her to do stuff like 13 Going on 30, which I didn't see but got some good reviews, most of which praised her charming performance even if they didn't love the movie. At least that sort of thing is branching out, while this finds Garner doing a lot of the same Sydney Bristow mannerisms that show up every week on Alias (for free).

As a movie, it's kind of inert, not particularly exciting or engrossing; the kid Elektra is supposed to protect comes off as annoying rather than endearing, and the action just looks like Bowman watched some Zhang Yimou movies and tried to copy them on about half the budget. The biggest problem, though, is that mediocre or just plain bad comic book movies like this one continuously dilute the value of comics in the eyes of Hollywood and mainstream movie-goers, and while in reality there is little to no correlation between the quality of an Elektra movie and the quality of an Elektra comic book, that's not how people who aren't familiar with comics will see it. I've got a whole essay on this topic brewing; it'll probably end up in Las Vegas Weekly when Constantine and Son of the Mask are both released in Februrary. Wide release

House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, dir. Zhang Yimou)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm beginning to come around to some of the criticism of Zhang for making pretty movies that lack substance, but I think the point of this film and of Hero is looking pretty, and that other concerns are secondary to enjoying the films, and that's not a bad thing. Not that the stories are worthless; just that the beauty of the action and the scenery is an end in and of itself, a pure sort of expression of joy in human movement, like watching a dance piece. The meaning is in the imagery as much as in the story, and that's still something of value. Opened limited Dec. 3; in Las Vegas this week

In Good Company (Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Scarlett Johansson, dir. Paul Weitz)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I was kinder to this film in my review than I felt after first coming out of the theater, and people I know who've seen it have generally enjoyed it. It's genial and harmless, sure, but it's also toothless when it keeps coming close to saying something substantive. While I'm all for well-crafted feel-good entertainment, I just can't help but think that there was a much more interesting and insightful movie in here somewhere. Opened limited Dec. 29; wide release this week

The Woodsman (Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Benjamin Bratt, dir. Nicole Kassell)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Although I am a rabid consumer of movie news and reviews, sometimes I wish I could go into a movie knowing nothing about it, and this was one of those times. Every article and review about this film mentions what the protagonist did to land him in jail, but the film's first 25 minutes, before he himself reveals that information, do a wonderful job of building a character that we can care about without knowing what he did, and it's a shame that almost no one is going to come to the movie not already knowing. It seems almost futile to avoid saying what the crime was here, but I'm doing it anyway in hopes that someone might end up with the unspoiled viewing experience that I would have liked. Opened limited Dec. 24; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Life Neurotic

That was the best pun I could come up with to describe the bitter, insecure Wes Anderson fans who have been e-mailing me ever since I posted a negative review of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Since I don't think these are going to end up printed in Las Vegas Weekly, I thought I'd share some of the accusations.

This came from an e-mail address from Vassar College, which I imagine accounts for the essay-style questions and use of film theory terms "diegetic" and "extradiegetic:"

Dear Mr. Bell:

I have recently seen this film, and I would just like to ask you and a few
other film reviewers a few questions regarding your review.

1.) Why do you think that the characters of the film 'have no souls'? Can
you define to me what do you mean by 'soul', and how could it enhance the
characterization of a cinematic individual?
2.) Why do you think Steve Zissou is textually passionate of the ocean yet
visually disconnected and lethargic? D you think this juxtaposition serves
any diegetic or even extradiegetic purpose? If it does not, can you
explain how this 'trick' distracts from the narrative?
3.) Can you explain how the film may be improved if the characters are
'human' and 'emotional'?
4.) Why do you think does Anderson constantly reveal the artificiality of
the ship? Do you think this serves any narrative purpose? If not, how does
it destroy the 'flow' of the narrative?
5.) Why does this film proves once and for all Anderson's cynicism,
worthlessness, and arrogance, and how do you think he mocks the audience
and his characters in cinematic terms?

Thank you, and I apologize for taking your time.


I like that he apologizes for taking my time, like I'm actually going to compose detailed responses to his thinly-veiled attacks.

This guy does not veil his attacks, thinly or otherwise, and resorts to the classic tactic of people who disagree with movie reviews, the personal insult:

I just read your review of The Life Aquatic which I cant take issue with havent not seen the film. I will however address your mindless trashing of all Anderson's films. To say "Anderson's films have always been empty collections of quirks" easily reveals your ignorance and perhaps your insecurity with having never created anything insightful. Your review has a tone of disgruntled anger for Anderson's success beyond your own meager station in life. Get a clue. To say Anderson gives no consideration to plot and character is to demonstrate your own vapidity. Were you paying attention at all during Rushmore or Tenenbaums? There is nuch more than "a sliver of humanity." They are comedic masterpieces with dramatic action and real character in disguise. They are about redemeption and the search for meaning and beauty in life in the face of genuis, a theme that has perhaps been useless in your own pursuits. Apparently it doesn't take a film critic to notice these "big picture luxuries." Try not to let your own biases and petty discriminations distort what can be honest and imparital writing, but then again you are a film reviewer for the las vegas weekly. Better keep your day job, pal.

Strangely enough, reviewing films is my day job. He does get one thing right, though: Being a film critic certainly is a "meager station in life." You should see my paychecks.

This guy just gets right to the point:

Add this to the pile of similarly themed e-mails you must be receiving.

You're a bitter idiot (bad combo).

I guess if I were just bitter, or just an idiot, it would be okay.

Finally, in sad proof that I spend much of my free time Googling myself, I came across this mention in some blog:

Dear Josh, please consider taking a job in the marketing department at car dealership. Your lack of creativity and acceptance for new and different things puts you in the perfect role to make car advertisements less annoying.

Again, projecting onto me that because I didn't like the movie I must not be creative or able to accept new things.

I guess these aren't quite as bad as the hate mail (scroll down) I got from Hilary Duff fans when I panned her last movie, but in a way the Anderson fans are as blindly loyal and deluded as the Duff ones. They can just use bigger words to express themselves. Anyone with an interest in the cult of Anderson should check out this article in some magazine called n + 1 (talk about your pretentious hipster titles) that posits that the failure of The Life Aquatic is a death knell for hipsters. Which would be okay with me, I guess, although I find hipster chicks kind of hot. [link via Gawker]

Sunday, January 09, 2005

New comics 1/5

Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril #2 (Joshua Dysart/Sal Velluto, Penny Farthing Press)
I'm enjoying this take on Golden Age superheroics even more this issue, although I still wish they'd cut loose a little more and be funnier, as the little fake ads in the back are. But overall there's a nice sense of adventure and intrigue, and Velluto's art looks beautiful - I bet Marvel or DC will be snapping him up for a higher-profile title soon. If they don't, they're crazy.

Noble Causes #6 (Jay Faerber/Fran Bueno, Image)
This is one of the weaker recent issues, with Faerber wrapping up the Liz-leaves-Race plot way too quickly and in a way that makes it look like he threw it in for no reason other than to have a cliffhanger in the last issue. The rest of the subplots move along only slightly, but there is an intriguing cliffhanger ending that looks like it has promise, and Bueno's art grows on me more and more with each issue. Also, I haven't mentioned the back-up strip, Opposites Attack by Brian Joines and Ray-Anthony Height, which has been running for two or three issues, but I'll take the time now to say: It's terrible. Lame dialogue, annoying characters, confusing plotting and ugly art. At least it doesn't cut into the story pages for the main strip like Faerber's old back-ups used to. But I could certainly do without it.

X-Men: Phoenix - Endsong #1 (Greg Pak/Greg Land, Marvel)
Man, what a cumbersome title. Anyway, I picked up this mini-series against my better judgment, since I almost never buy X-Men mini-series anymore, but it's not too bad. Pak has set up an interesting way to tell a story about the Phoenix without necessarily bringing back Jean Grey, and he uses bits of continuity from other X-books, too. Really, there's no reason why this couldn't be a story arc in X-Men, other than that Marvel wants more X-books for people to spend money on. It involves most of the core team members and tells an important story, but many won't read it because it's relegated to a mini. Pak, who started as an indie filmmaker (I reviewed his middling film, Robot Stories, here), sets up some decent ideas, and if they play out well this could be a good read. Land is praised all over the place online, but this is the first sequential work of his I've read. I think his covers are wonderful, but his work is so overly photo-referenced that a lot of his figures are stiff and his panels lack a sense of fluid movement. Overall, a mixed bag, but I'll probably stick around for the rest.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Movies opening this week

White Noise (Michael Keaton, Deborah Kara Unger, Chandra West, dir. Geoffrey Sax)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Ah, the dregs of January. Thankfully, since Vegas is not considered a top market, we have a lot of awards-season favorites opening here this month to compete with the shitty wide releases that studios dump on audiences in January. So stuff like House of Flying Daggers, The Woodsman and Million Dollar Baby is set to open in coming weeks, and obviously you should save your money for something like that, rather than this useless horror movie about which there is not much to say except: Ugh. Wide release

Monday, January 03, 2005

Weekend viewing

Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
Okay, I think I am a fairly smart person and an informed film viewer. I think I have a fairly good handle on analyzing movies; I do it for a living, after all. And I don't think films should have to bludgeon you over the head with their meaning and message; I don't mind doing a little work to figure out what's going on. Most of my favorite films have more than one level of meaning, and things like allegory and symbolism almost always enrich the viewing experience. But I have to admit that this one sailed over my head, and unlike some other obtuse films (see last week's viewing of Robert Altman's 3 Women, for example), it didn't gain any value in my eyes when I thought about it further or read some explanations and criticism. I'd never seen any other Antonioni films, so I don't know how representative this is of his work, but I do know that it's considered a cinema classic, and I'm trying to understand why. There was a certain surface aesthetic value, with the fashion and music and mores of the time, but it was more in a camp, Austin Powers sort of way than anything else. The scene with the Yardbirds performing, while filled with good music, served absolutely no purpose. Apparently this film is about the ephemerality of images, and films in particular, but I was frankly surprised to discover that this is considered a movie about movies. The ending, with the stereotypical hallmark of pretentious art movies - mimes - was totally ridiculous, and frankly whatever Antonioni is trying to say in this annoying, vague way is not something I'm particularly interested in hearing, anyway. I don't want to complain about the lack of plot, because I think the knee-jerk need for a "plot" is one of the problems with the average film-goer, but at the same time it's not as if there's no plot - there's actually a somewhat interesting murder mystery plot, and if Antonioni is going to bother to put that out there, it would be nice of him not to just drop it in the last ten minutes of the movie with no resolution or even any sort of ambiguous non-resolution. I suppose I'd be willing to acknowledge that this is a great film if someone showed me the right perspective on it, but for now I'm inclined to believe that, like 2001, for example, it's just pretentious twaddle that film students say is brilliant because they don't want to look stupid.

Red Lights (Cedric Kahn, 2004)
Here's another obtuse movie, but one where I could at least discern some of what the director was trying to say. It's one of those uniquely French thrillers, that starts off as sort of straightforward and Hitchcockian and then veers into surreality, only to somehow tie it all up at the end. The story is disjointed and a little meandering, especially the middle section where a husband, separated from his wife, picks up a dangerous drifter. But it all builds to an interesting conclusion that seems to say that marriage is work akin to killing some guy by running him over with your car a bunch of times. Which is a message I can get behind.

Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973)
I love Woody Allen. I can almost always trust an Allen movie to be a good palate cleanser, and this was no exception (especially after my annoyance with Blowup). I think Allen is without a doubt one of the greatest American filmmakers of the last 50 years, and I think it's a travesty that whenever the great masters of the 1970s American mainstream film renaissance (Altman, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Kubrick, maybe De Palma) are discussed, Allen is almost always left out. In my mind he is at least as good as those other directors, and he also writes his own films, which is something that always increases my respect for a director. Not that Sleeper is necessarily a great piece of cinema - it's one of his "early, funny" pictures (cf. Stardust Memories) and as such is mostly a loose agglomeration of gags with a pretty thin plot. It's more goofy than most of his later work, and its futuristic setting and slapstick humor makes it like watching a sci-fi Marx brothers movie. But still great fun, and a breath of fresh air compared to some of Allen's more serious work.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

New comics 12/29

Batman/Danger Girl (Andy Hartnell/Leinil Yu, DC/Wildstorm)
I have a sad weakness for Danger Girl comics. I think it somehow ties in with my weakness for Charlie's Angels movies. I really enjoyed the original series, which, yes, took like two years to release seven issues. But it was a fun, light read, with humor and action and really pretty art by J. Scott Campbell. So I buy these sporadic Danger Girl specials, which I generally enjoy but wonder if they are really worth their high cover prices (this one was $4.95). This one is decent, better than the Vegas one but not as good as the Hawaii one. Campbell isn't even credited as co-writer this time, so I wonder if he's abandoned his creation, although Hartnell does fine on his own and was probably always the one doing the scripting anyway. I miss Phil Noto's art from the last two specials; it fit the characters perfectly. Yu is a little too gritty for Danger Girl, although he still draws some beautiful women and handles the action well. Overall this is like most Danger Girl stuff: Fun if you like that sort of thing, but completely missable.

The Monolith #11 (Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray/Peter Snejbjerg, DC)
Damn, Palmiottit and Gray finally get my interest back up just in time for the book to end. After kind of flailing for the last few issues, they come back strong with an interesting story about corrupt police, told in a non-linear, Christopher Priest-like style. I'm not quite sure how this will lead into the book's end next issue, but I assume there will be some sort of general wrap-up. It's too bad that regular artist Phil Winslade won't be around to see the book out, but Snejbjerg is a perfectly capable replacement. It'd be nice to see this character not fade into obscurity and stick around the DC universe, but I'm not counting on it.

Savage Dragon #119 (Erik Larsen, Image)
Larsen's a little late with his election story, but I suppose you can forgive him. This is a fun issue, with Larsen taking some jabs at Bush that are really rather gentle but still funny, and holding up the grand tradition of Dragon beating up sacred figures (God, Santa) with the Dragon-Bush fight. There is also more with Mr. Glum, who I always find amusing, and an intriguing set-up for the next issue. It's just too bad that we probably won't see the results of Larsen's election before the actual inauguration.

What If Jessica Jones Had Joined the Avengers? (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Gaydos, Marvel)
This was the only one of Marvel's many What If books that I picked up this week, because it reunited the writer, artist and main character of Alias, a book I greatly enjoyed. I was hoping for a cool Alias-style tale, but this book was total crap. Bendis spends nine pages, almost half of the issue, recapping the events of Alias, and then his actual story is told almost entirely in captions, with no real action. And the end result? Jessica averts the events of Avengers Disassembled, so the entire thing is one big annoying Bendis wankfest. What a waste. Between this and the last issue of The Pulse, Bendis is really making me wonder if he's run out of ideas when it comes to telling stories about Jessica Jones.