Monday, March 28, 2005

Weekend viewing

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)
I rented this thinking not only that I wanted to see this particular film, but also that I hadn't seen nearly enough Carpenter films. Imagine my surprise looking on IMDb after the film to discover that this is actually the eighth Carpenter film I've seen. I think the problem is that I've seen more of his later, crappier work (Village of the Damned, Vampires) and less of his better early work, like this. It's an old-fashioned ghost story, told economically and effectively, with minimal special effects (basically, um, a bunch of fog). I think Carpenter was at his best just creeping people out like here and in Halloween, rather than going for too much tongue-in-cheek camp like in the aforementioned later work.

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)
One of those movies that is allegedly legendary but I had never heard of until NetFlix recommended it for me. It's touted as the British answer to Psycho, and indeed it is extremely Hitchcockian, to the point where if you told me it was a lost Hitchcock film I'd probably believe you. Like Psycho, it features a strangely sympathetic killer, and Powell does Hitchcock one better by making the killer the unambiguous protagonist. Apparently enormously controversial in its time, it feels tame by today's standards but is still pretty damn creepy.

Tom Dowd and the Language of Music (Mark Moormann, 2003)
A friend recommended this documentary highly, and while it's fawning to the point of obsequiousness, it's also an interesting look at one of the unsung heroes of 1960s and 70s pop music. Dowd was an engineer and later a producer on seminal recordings by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Cream, Lynyrd Skynyrd and many others, and he's an affable and engaging presence in Moormann's zippy documentary. Moormann nicely glosses over what Dowd did after his height of working with influential acts, and the film feels incomplete for not addressing, say, the last 20 or 30 years of the man's life. But as a record of Dowd's accomplishments and an insight into the early days of rock, it's fascinating.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

New comics 3/23

The Expatriate #1 (B. Clay Moore/Jason Latour, Image)
I'm trying out a few new things lately, and this one caught my eye for its noir tone and interesting art. The plot actually reminds me a lot of Howard Chaykin's Vertigo series American Century, which I found interesting in theory and then dropped after a few issues because the execution was lacking. Moore follows an American on the run from the CIA in an unnamed Latin American country, where he crosses paths with a sexy femme fatale and some local lowlifes. It's hard to tell from the first issue where it's going and whether it will end up being interesting, but I'm willing to give it a little time to see what happens. I also like Latour's sketchy, inky art, with its dark colors that effectively capture the dark tone.

Livewires #2 (Adam Warren/Rick Mays, Marvel)
Pretty much the same as the first issue, with an energetic sense of fun and some good lines, plus a few more ties to the Marvel universe. I don't sense much in the way of an overarching plot for the mini-series, but that's okay as long as it remains entertaining.

The New West #1 (Jimmy Palmiotti/Phil Noto, Black Bull)
First off, I, like many, was surprised to learn that Black Bull was still publishing. This is kind of an odd vehicle, a two-issue mini-series with a high price tag ($4.99), but I'm glad I picked it up. Palmiotti, writing without his usual partner Justin Gray, comes up with an interesting concept that combines sci-fi with a hard-boiled detective story and a little bit of the western, as implied by the title. Sometimes his dialogue is a little clunky, but the plot moves along well and the world is full of promise. Noto's art, of course, is stunning; I absolutely love his work. While I enjoyed the Danger Girl specials he did recently, it's a nice to see him sink his teeth into something a little more substantive. A good read, although it'd be nice if the price were a little lower.

Runaways #2 (Brian K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona, Marvel)
As many have pointed out, the way that Vaughan sets up the battle between the Runaways and Excelsior is a little contrived, but there are plenty of other mysteries (the Gert from the future, Victor Mancha's parentage, Excelsior's mysterious benefactor) to keep my interest. There is also the typically sharp dialogue and some character development with interesting potential.

X-Men #168 (Peter Milligan/Salvador Larroca, Marvel)
This is head and shoulders above Milligan's first two issues simply because it actually makes sense. Now that I can finally follow the story, I can't say that it's blowing me away, but it's at least exploring some interesting stuff, and if some of the characterization is a little heavy-handed, I can't really fault Milligan for trying to make lemonade out of the lemons that Chuck Austen left behind. I'm still waiting for the whole storyline to play out to see if I'll keep reading or not.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Movies opening this week

Gunner Palace (documentary, dir. Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Even though this isn't the greatest movie from a filmmaking standpoint, I'm glad to see something like it get attention, because what seems to sometimes get lost in the back-and-forth rhetoric about the war is the experience of the soldiers. I think you could come away from this film thinking that the war is a waste and it's doing terrible things to these people, but you could also come away thinking that the war is justified and these people are sacrificing a lot to do a great service. Either way, you'll come away with sympathy for the soldiers, and that's a good thing. Opened limited Mar. 4; in Las Vegas this week

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (Sandra Bullock, Regina King, Diedrich Bader, dir. John Pasquin)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Really nothing needs to be added, except I'm always happy to see more William Shatner. If you're thinking of seeing this movie, just watch Boston Legal instead. Wide release

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Weekend viewing

Miss Congeniality (Donald Petrie, 2000)
The downside of being a movie critic is that sometimes I have to do things like review the sequel to Miss Congeniality, and in order to be thorough and fair I have to watch the original Miss Congeniality to prepare. You can imagine how that goes.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962)
After seeing All About Eve a few months ago, I was so smitten with Bette Davis that I added a few of her most well-known films to my NetFlix queue. In retrospect maybe this wasn't the best place to look for a brilliant Davis performance, since this movie is total camp and Davis is way over the top in her fright wig and pancake makeup, giving the kind of hammy performance you expect from a legendary actor in their later years (cf. pretty much anything Al Pacino does these days). Anyway, I did enjoy this on a silly camp level, but didn't find it particularly suspenseful or frightening. Maybe I expected too much.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

New comics 3/16

Cable & Deadpool #13 (Fabian Nicieza/Patrick Zircher, Marvel)
I really think this is the best X-book after Astonishing X-Men. It's kind of weird, but it's true, and it's all thanks to Nicieza, who's taken a crap concept with potentially dodgy characters and made it a great read, much like he did on his greatly underappreciated Gambit series a few years ago. This issue sets up a murder mystery at Cable's utopian compound Providence, which is really just an excuse for Deadpool to act goofy and make meta-references, all of which is highly entertaining. Plus, Nicieza completely takes the piss out of Avengers Disassembled in the letters page. A great read all around.

Ex Machina #9 (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
While the ongoing mystery is intriguing, I still find Mitchell's romance with the reporter one of the most interesting things, since it gives Vaughan the chance to write some nice snappy dialogue. Otherwise, nothing to say about this issue that I haven't said about previous ones.

Noble Causes #8 (Jay Faerber/Fran Bueno, Image)
I'm glad to see Bueno back on art, and I like both the adventures on the alien world and the Doc Noble body-switching storlylines. I wonder about Faerber's revelation about Liz, though, since it seems a little too similar to what we learned about another character a few issues back. I have faith he'll turn into something different, though, and I like the character too much to want to see her torn down. In other news, the back-up strip still sucks, and I'd love it if Faerber went back to using the space to tell NC flashback stories.

Young Avengers #2 (Allen Heinberg/Jim Cheung, Marvel)
You know, this is a really good book, and it seems like a lot of skeptics are coming around to that. I've never cared about the Avengers and didn't read Disassembled, but Heinberg has put together a group of interesting characters and made them into a believable teen team. This book reminds me in many ways of Runaways, with the young heroes who make mistakes and don't always get along, the way it uses and respects continuity without being a slave to it, and (at least in the two issues so far) the effective use of the cliffhanger ending. One of the year's most pleasant surprises, and worth checking out for fans of Runaways or Young Justice or the old New Warriors. Or just good superhero comics.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Movies opening this week

The Ring Two (Naomi Watts, David Dorfman, Daveigh Chase, dir. Hideo Nakata)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I don't quite understand why they got the director of the original Japanese version of this franchise to direct if all they were going to do is have him make a boring horror sequel that ignores most of what made the first one interesting. I think the remakes and copycats of J-horror are getting to be a bit much, but The Ring was good and they could theoretically made a good sequel instead of this bland film. Wide release

The Upside of Anger (Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, Alicia Witt, dir. Mike Binder)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Man, did I hate this movie. Sometimes I find certain movies so objectionable and then I read other reviews and don't find the same vitriol and wonder if I am crazy. The same thing happened with Spanglish, although I hated that one much more and also found at least some reviews that agreed with me. I wish there were better vehicles for female actors that actually gave them strong roles to play instead of condescending to them while pretending to celebrate them; all of the actresses in this film deserve that chance. Opened limited Mar. 11; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, March 14, 2005

Weekend viewing

It was a very gay weekend for me, movie-wise.

Angels in America (Mike Nichols, 2003)
Since this won seemingly every award for like two straight years, I figured I ought to give it a shot. Plus I had a friend in college who was absolutely obsessed with Tony Kushner, and she'd probably be happy I finally saw this. Maybe the hype was too much, but overall this just didn't work for me. There are some great elements, especially the core relationship between Prior and Louis, played by two of the only actors in the ensemble who didn't get award nominations, and the ones who probably most deserved them. The rest of it was just too much - too long, too many mystical digressions that ultimately went nowhere, too much overacting by Al Pacino, too much overwrought dialogue bursting with meaningless meaning. I did love the score, though, and it looked great for a TV movie. Maybe if I had seen it on stage ten or fifteen years ago it would have had more impact, but now it seems less daring than kind of oddly nostalgic, and not in a good way.

I'm the One That I Want (Lionel Coleman, 2000)
I've never really had conventional celebrity crushes. When I was 13 or 14 my biggest crushes were probably Christina Ricci, Janeane Garofalo, and Margaret Cho. I still have a thing for funny, bitter, full-figured women. Anyway, the point is I've had a thing for Margaret Cho for some time, but I haven't seen any of her stand-up in a while. This reminded me of what I loved about her, the hilarious riffs on sexuality and the impressions of her mother and her funny and moving story of trying to live up to Hollywood's ideals for her. I know in her later concert films she's gotten more political and allegedly less funny, and it's odd considering how much she celebrates her plump look that she's lost a lot of weight lately and doesn't talk about it. But this film predates all that, and is just a really funny and honest performance from a great comedian. After watching, I checked out Comedy Central's 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time; Cho never made the list, although Gallagher did. How sad.

New comics 3/9

Fables #35 (Bill Willingham/David Hahn, DC/Vertigo)
The Jack in Hollywood storyline wraps up in a fairly predictable fashion, although it's entertaining enough. What's more interesting is the way Willingham teases developments in the core storyline that occurred while Jack was away. I'm looking forward to getting to those next issue, and to the return of Mark Buckingham on art (not that Hahn did a bad job).

Vimanarama #2 (Grant Morrison/Philip Bond, DC/Vertigo)
As I mentioned yesterday when I wrote about Seaguy, when Morrison throws everything and the kitchen sink into a story, he tends to lose me, and this is threatening to go in that direction. For now, though, I'm still enjoying it, especially in the small emotional moments between Ali and Sofia. The grand, weird world-ending stuff is less intriguing, but it's a fun read overall.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Catching up on reading

Between last July's visit to the San Diego Comicon and being on DC's press list, I've got piles of trades and graphic novels that I'm meaning to read. I'd like to get through most of them before I inevitably end up buying a bunch more at this year's Comicon, so I've been doing my best to catch up. Here's what I've read lately.

Seaguy (Grant Morrison/Cameron Stewart, DC/Vertigo)
I'm kind of hot and cold on Morrison, but after loving We3 so much I was happy to see this show up in the mail. Sadly this is more cold for me, reminding me of stuff like Marvel Boy where Morrison throws in 53765486 ideas in the span of three issues and just totally derails any point he may or may not be trying to make. We3 was focused and remarkably affecting; this is scattershot and largely unmoving, mostly because about halfway through I gave up trying to understand it at all. Still, nice art from Stewart, and a few funny moments. Ultimately, though, it lost me.

She-Hulk: Single Green Female (Dan Slott/Juan Bobillo & Paul Pelletier, Marvel)
I heard so many good things about this that I just had to pick up the trade. It's exactly the kind of thing I usually enjoy: Smart, funny superhero comics with a love for tradition and continuity but a forward-looking mentality that tweaks the formula. Slott takes on the idea of superhuman law with zeal, treating it at face value and wringing plenty of comedic value from it. He also gives his central character plenty of depth and redeems some dregs of the Marvel universe, making them likeable and readable. Some people found Bobillo's art too unconventional for this book, but I liked it; Pelletier's more traditional superhero look worked just as well, though. I'll look for the next trade and maybe pick up the ongoing when it resumes in October.

Slow News Day (Andi Watson, Slave Labor Graphics)
I like comics with small human drama and simple art; Watson's linework is very evocative with only minimal elements. But the story here felt too slight to me, and I had a hard time really identifying with the characters. I suppose the point is that very little happens, but it left me wondering why I was reading about these people at all.

Terminal City (Dean Motter/Michael Lark, DC/Vertigo)
What a disappointment. I loved Motter's Electropolis that came out from Image a few years ago, so I was eager to read its predecessor. It does have the same retro-futurism and noir style as Electropolis, and Lark's art looks great. But the story is completely incomprehensible; there are far too many characters, twists and double-crosses to follow. After a while I just gave up trying to figure it out, but it left me feeling kind of hollow. I picked up the sequel in individual issues for 50 cents a while back. I was excited to find it at the time, but now I'm much less eager to read it.

Movies opening this week

Born Into Brothels (documentary, dir. Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I was a little uneasy about this film when I first started watching it, because it seemed like they were exploiting the children in a sort of self-righteous way, but ultimately I think both the intentions and the effect are good. It's impossible to avoid all exploitation simply because this is a film that people are paying to see, but overall Kauffman and Briski do their best to bring some real good into the lives of the children and not just make a movie. I'm glad this won the Oscar, since it's a well-made film on top of covering an important topic. Opened limited Dec. 8; in Las Vegas this week

Bride & Prejudice (Aishwarya Rai, Martin Henderson, Daniel Gillies, dir. Gurinder Chadha)
There seem to be two schools of thought on Gurinder Chadha: Those who think her films are entertaining, uplifting stories about the blending of cultures, and those who find both her view of multi-culturalism and her filmmaking style simplistic and even condescneding. For my part, I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle. I thoroughly enjoyed Bend it Like Beckham, and while I didn't enjoy Bride & Prejudice as much, it wasn't because I didn't think she represented multi-culturalism properly. Stylistically, the film is an experiment, combining Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, the template for all modern romantic comedies, with the gaudy, over-the-top style of Bollywood musicals. The two don't always blend smoothly, and Bride often suffers when its actors have to break into song and hurt the film's momentum. But I admire Chadha for trying to combine her diverse influences; just because she can't do it as effortlessly as Quentin Tarantino doesn't mean she should give up trying.

As for her representations of culture, they are indeed rosy-colored and often oversimplified. But the fact is that there are so few films (especially mainstream ones) tackling these issues that Chadha becomes the default spokesperson for multi-culturalism in film, and that's not fair to her. Why should she have to encompass all viewpoints on the subject just because she's the one who's able to get films made? She's clearly telling stories from her own point of view, which is optimistic and romantic and squarely upper-middle-class, and it's perfectly valid for her to do so. Yes, it'd be nice if other filmmakers were able to make widely accepted films that attacked these subjects with more nuance and realism, but there's no need to punish Chadha for the lack of support for such films. Opened limited Feb. 11; in Las Vegas this week

Robots (Voices of Ewan McGregor, Robin Williams, Greg Kinnear, dir. Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
You know, I think I might have given Robin Williams too much of a pass in the review; he's definitely not restrained enough. Still, his tired antics don't ruin the film, which is a perfectly harmless movie for kids that will keep adults mildly entertained. Wide release

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Weekend viewing

Laurel Canyon (Lisa Cholodenko, 2002)
I thought Cholodenko's first film, 1998's High Art, was quite good, aside from its Indie Film 101 ending, but this one has all the signs of a successful indie filmmaker getting a bigger budget for a follow-up and losing her way. The biggest problem to me was the gross miscasting of Kate Beckinsale as an M.D./Ph.D. student working on a dissertation about the genomes of fruit flys. No matter what, I cannot buy Kate Beckinsale as a science nerd. 18th century lady? Sure. Ass-kicking vampire hunter? No problem. Science nerd? Never going to happen. Cholodenko also fails to establish the central relationship between Beckinsale and Christian Bale, so it's hard to care if they stay together or not. The only saving grace is the brilliant Frances McDormand, who plays a record producer allegedly based loosely on Joni Mitchell. That's fine, except Cholodenko's music biz scenes have a really false ring to them. I bought that she understood the world of art photography in High Art; in this, everything just comes off as forced.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

New comics 3/2

Captain America and the Falcon #13 (Christopher Priest/Dan Jurgens, Marvel)
I guess I was wrong about all the story elements from the last arc spilling over into this issue, since this does feel like a new start and isn't bogged down in the convoluted plotting of the last 12 issues. For once, I'm not totally confused, and Priest focuses on the most interesting aspect of this series, which is the changing personality of the Falcon. It makes me disappointed that the series is ending in one more issue, and I hope Priest gets the Falcon solo series he's been hinting at. Jurgens' art is serviceable; I've always found him generically competent, but it's still miles ahead of the rush job Greg Tocchini did on the last issue.

Fallen Angel #19 (Peter David/David Lopez, DC)
Another penultimate issue, and this feels like an anticlimax after the big wrap-up last issue. If the book were continuing as an ongoing, this wouldn't be a problem, since David does advance new subplots, but knowing that it all ends next issue makes me frustrated that David is spending the final two issues of the series on a throwaway cross-over with his Sachs and Violens characters, who strike me as a little lame and outdated.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Movies opening this week

Be Cool (John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Vince Vaughn, Christina Milian, dir. F. Gary Gray)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Not so much a disappointment because I already expected so little from the previews, but nevertheless a total waste of time. I'd really like to think that if you get all these (mostly) talented actors together, and adapt a novel by Elmore Leonard, and use a semi-competent director, you can make a good movie. But no. Horribly cynical, derivative, full of product placement, not funny; I probably should have given it a lower rating. (BTW, the review was hacked in half at the last minute by my editor, so that's why it reads choppy.) Wide release

Inside Deep Throat (documentary, dir. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
A wholly entertaining film, but rather empty on reflection. Bailey and Barbato trot out a cavalcade of cultural pundits who ultimately say very little about the real meaning or significance of Deep Throat in a broader cultural sense. You do get some interesting info on the lives of the film's principal participants, but it's mostly like watching an E! True Hollywood Story with better production values (which, incidentally, are quite impressive for a documentary). Opened limited Feb. 11; in Las Vegas this week

The Jacket (Adrien Brody, Keira Knightley, Kris Kristofferson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, dir. John Maybury)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It really takes a lot for one of these "mind-bending psychological thrillers" to impress me these days. All the "shocking" twists have been done to death and most of the time they're put in for the sake of having them rather than to serve the story. The Jacket circumvents that problem by having no twist at all, and instead just petering out. It had the potential to be a good movie, but it's just...not. Wide release

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (Tony Jaa, Petchthai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol, dir. Prachya Pinkaew)
This movie has a huge cult following (one of my co-workers got very excited to see the screener show up in the mail) and has gotten a lot of good reviews (including one in Las Vegas Weekly), but I was not impressed. Rather, I was impressed with star Tony Jaa, who's generally the focus of all the praise, but I didn't think it was enough to carry the movie. Jaa is indeed an amazing performer, and his Muay Thai kickboxing style is all the more impressive considering what a stark contrast it is to the stately, graceful, wire-enhanced martial arts of Zhang Yimou's popular epics. This is a gritty, street-level martial arts film in the style of early Jackie Chan, and Jaa's stunts, performed without stuntmen or artificial aids, are a sight to behold. But the movie itself is dreadful, with a barely-there plot, cheesy dialogue, bad acting and incredibly crude direction. Although Jaa's moves are often astounding, the fights themselves are sometimes surprisingly poorly choreographed, with punches clearly landing nowhere near the actual person, and sound effects arriving way before the blows do. You could put together a 30-minute short of just Jaa's stunts, and it'd be great, but a 100-minute movie is really tedious. It's obvious that martial arts fans don't really care, but anyone not obsessed with the genre will likely get bored. Opened limited Feb. 11; in Las Vegas this week

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Weekend viewing

Sid & Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986)
Didn't really know what to expect from this, but it turned out to be pretty interesting. Certainly not your typical rock biopic; it barely touches on the career of the Sex Pistols, instead zeroing in on the scary and destructive relationship between Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy. Definitely paints a harrowing picture of drug addiction and, indeed, of punk rock. Unlike most movies and books about that time, this film makes it seem like something that was ugly, nihilistic and nasty, not at all something I'd ever want to have been a part of. Of course this is showing the negative, and the reality is somewhere in between this and the nostalgic recollections of some people, but I liked that Cox wasn't afraid to show the darkness in what so many see as this revolutionary social movement. It is a little hard to like Sid or Nancy, but by the end I definitely felt attached to them, and in that sense Cox made an effective film.