Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Weekend viewing

All or Nothing (Mike Leigh, 2002)
I have to admit, I was kind of afraid of Mike Leigh movies before seeing Vera Drake. But I loved that one, so I feel like my fear is conquered. Also, I generally enjoy really depressing movies, so it was probably an irrational fear all along. I didn't find this nearly as good as Vera Drake, but it's still a rich character study with excellent acting and really not as depressing as you might think. Unlike misanthropes like Todd Solondz or Neil LaBute, Leigh finds moments of genuine hope and humanity in the lives of his characters. They may all be working dead-end jobs and harboring seething family resentments, but at the same time they nurture genuine friendships and a strong sense of community. At times the bleakness is almost laughable, but Leigh deflates that by having the characters actually laugh, and allowing the audience to laugh with, not at, them.

Fear and Trembling (Alain Corneau, 2003)
I had kind of a vague interest in this, and then some people told me it was great, and my interest increased, and then I watched it and it was not great. I should have kept the vague interest because then I probably would have been satisfied. It's sort of an awkward cross between Lost in Translation and Secretary, and ultimately takes a pretty simplistic view of Japan. While Translation viewed Japan as a kind of mysterious, incomprehensible world, this film comprehends Japan very well, and sees it (or at least its dominant corporate culture) as sadistic and dehumanizing. The main character supposedly has this great love of Japan, but the whole movie just makes the place seem miserable and Japanese people seem stupid for conforming to its rules.

Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994)
This is exactly what I was talking about a few weeks ago with regards to intelligent, funny romantic comedies. Andie MacDowell's strangely flat performance aside, this is just a really entertaining, warm, enjoyable film that focuses on romance without shoving it down our throats. For some reason Richard Curtis (writer of this film, as well as Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary and Love Actually, which he also directed) is always able to make romance believable, even when his films are completely unrealistic. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but what I mean is that while his situations are often fairy tales, his characters feel like real people in love, if such people were confronted with such extraordinary circumstances. It's hard to make an audience really believe in love in the movies, especially in a comedy, and I think Curtis is one of the best at it.

Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995)
I have a good excuse: I interviewed Joe Eszterhas today, and I had to prepare. Showgirls is being screened as part of this year's CineVegas film festival, in a sidebar on Vegas in the movies. Truthfully, I already had the DVD from NetFlix sitting on my TV before I got the Eszterhas assignment. Why? Well, I suppose there's the value of seeing a cultural touchstone. There's my sometimes unhealthy interest in campy cult classics. Or there's this downright orgasmic review from Slant Magazine, which places Showgirls on its list of "100 Essential Films." I didn't quite reach those heights, but I did get some enjoyment from the camp value and I wasn't bored or annoyed even though the film is more than two hours long. I loved Gina Gershon's performance, because Gina Gershon is awesome in everything. I loved Elizabeth Berkeley's performance in a camp way, especially her ridiculously exaggerated movements that extend her poor dancing into every move her character makes. I'm not really buying into it as "the think-piece object d'art of its time," as Slant calls it, but I'm not about to heap scorn on it either.

The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)
Man, this film is really gay. Another result of my interest in camp classics, and I think I have discovered an unfortunate truth: Most people become enamored of such films because they catch them randomly on TV or in a video store and don't know what to expect, thus being surprised by the sheer amusing ridiculousness. When you seek out a movie specifically for that ridiculousness, though, it kind of loses its charm. So, yes, this movie is intensely, hilariously homoerotic, perhaps the least realistic portrayal of gang life in the history of cinema, full of stupid lines and awesomely awful costumes, but I was totally bored, since that was exactly what I expected. I think someone needs to randomly assault me with campy movies I've never heard of so I can experience that joy of discovery.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Season finale roundup

I had all but given up on this show, but there were moments in the last half hour of the finale when I saw glimmers of hope for the future. The defeat of Marwan and the destruction of the missile were absurdly anti-climactic, and I went back and forth between being glad that the whole mess was over and pissed that they had wasted so much of my time with it only to brush it off so inconsequentially. After that, though, with the Chinese Consulate out to get Jack, each new wrinkle in the storyline brought to my mind potential for a radically different take on the next season: Jack in a Chinese prison, Jack on the run from his own government, a war between the U.S. and China, Jack dead and CTU in shambles without him, anything. The thing this show needs more than anything is to shake up its formula, get past the same terrorist threats and CTU maneuvering that were tired halfway through the second season. The actual ending, with Jack faking his death and wandering off into the sunset, left me hopeful and even willing to give next season a shot. That is until I read this article, in which co-creator and executive producer Robert Cochran talks about how they will be getting Jack right back in the saddle at CTU, and the word is he'll be dealing with - wait for it - another terrorist threat. For all the press this show gets for being so "daring," the producers are deathly afraid to mess with their formula, which is just about the only thing that would keep me watching. Small glimmer of hope or not, I probably won't be back for the next season.

Overall this season was a big improvement over last year, especially when they got away from the stand-alone episodes in the second half. That said, the finale was a bit of an anti-climax and maybe a little too absurd for my tastes. The 28 Days Later ripoff zombies? I could have done without them. The cheap shock ending that came out of nowhere? Nothing like the emotional impact of season two's awesome cliffhanger. And this is the culmination of the Rambaldi prophecy? Kind of a limp way to resolve that after years of building it up. Still, there were some great lines and I loved seeing Lena Olin back, however briefly. I think J.J. Abrams may be spreading himself too thin, and unlike Lost, which has a fellow creator and guiding force in Damon Lindelof, this show really suffers without Abrams' strong hand at the helm. I also worry that it will go out with a whimper with next season's move to Thursday, much like Felicity petered out in its fourth season without Abrams around. It'd be a shame to see this show decline like that, and I'll keep my hopes up that it won't happen.

Desperate Housewives
Another to count me out on, as the finale didn't do anything to persuade me that this show didn't just blow its wad in the beginning of the season and have nothing to back up its admittedly intriguing mysteries. I lost interest in why Mary Alice killed herself months ago, and the explanation wasn't shocking and it didn't shed any interesting light on any of the characters. Most importantly, it didn't feel like it had any sort of impact on the lives of the people on the show. I appreciate the effort to set up some new mysteries, but I couldn't care less about what Alfre Woodard's character is hiding in her house. With Rex presumably dead and George the annoying pharmacist signed as a regular for next season, I have very little hope for anything to keep my interest. It's sad to think back to the sharp and often laugh-out-loud dialogue of the pilot and wonder what exactly happened to all the cleverness that this show once had.

This is one show that had a mediocre finale but will still get me coming back for more. First of all, the penultimate episode was great, and I think the finale would have been much better with the same plot points compressed into one hour. At two hours, it just emphasized how little was actually happening. There were a few great moments (Arzt blowing up, the kidnapping of Walt), but far too many boring non-developments. Overall, though, this has been an incredibly exciting season, and I don't think this is a show that would be well-served by laying all its cards out on the table too soon. At least I have faith that the producers have planned things out ("If you start making it up as you go along, you're in Doomstown," says co-creator and executive producer Damon Lindelof in the new TV Guide), unlike the people who run 24 and regularly admit to having very little in the way of concrete long-term plans.

The O.C.
Of all the shows I was on the fence about, this probably had the strongest overall finale, but it still wasn't enough to get me to tune in next season, especially now that it's going to be on against both Alias and Survivor, both of which I definitely plan to keep watching. It seemed like Josh Schwartz really paid attention to all the problems with the season and addressed them to some extent in the finale. I liked that the kids and adults actually interacted in a meaningful way and their actions had consequences for each other. I liked that they kept to a certain continuity, remembering that characters like Hailey, Caitlyn and Jimmy (who, if he's back for next season as it seemed, is a welcome return) exist, even if they did totally forget about Lindsay. I liked that Seth and Summer weren't totally grating on my nerves, and that the dialogue had genuine humor. The cliffhanger, while better than last year's, still feels like the sort of thing they'll have to quickly backtrack on, and, most importantly, I just don't trust them to come up with sustainable plotlines for more than just one episode. I'd consider watching it if it weren't for the timeslot dilemma; as it is, I have to say goodbye.

Veronica Mars
Saving the best for last, as it were. I've gone on and on about how great this show is, both here and in my TV column for Las Vegas Weekly, so I'll keep the gushing brief: This was an excellent and very satisfying ending to both the season and the Lilly Kane murder mystery. I thought the penultimate episode, with Veronica finding out who raped her, was a little too cluttered with characters from the past, and the finale struck a perfect balance between showing us people we want to see and not losing focus on the central drama. I am very happy that UPN is bringing the show back next season, even if it's going to be on against my second favorite show, Lost. I do worry a little that it will be hard to come up with a second-season mystery as compelling as the first, but I put all my trust in Rob Thomas and his team that they'll accomplish it.

New comics 5/25

The Expatriate #2 (B. Clay Moore/Jason Latour, Image)
It may end up being a problem that the least interesting character so far is the protagonist. I still like this book, especially Latour's stylish, noir-style art, but I think we are going to have to get to know the title character much better before he becomes worth caring about. The plot in this issue was a little tough to follow, but all that aside, I still think this is a good read with a promising concept and I'm sticking with it for now.

Girls #1 (Joshua Luna & Jonathan Luna, Image)
I heard many good things about the Luna brothers' Ultra, and I plan to pick up the trade on that one at some point. In the meantime, I thought I'd get in on the ground floor of their new series. I have to say, I am not at all impressed. Even their sort of ethereal art, reminsicent of Joshua Middleton's work, which was a big part of what looked interesting about Ultra to me, falls short in this issue. It even looks rushed in places. The dialogue is stilted and unrealistic, and the main character is highly unlikeable. I'm not sure if this is going to take a supernatural turn or stay grounded in everyday life (the ending was a little ambiguous), but I'm not sticking around to find out. A definite disappointment.

The New West #2 (Jimmy Palmiotti/Phil Noto, Black Bull)
I really liked the first issue of this two-parter, and the wrap-up is a little less enjoyable. The great noir tone (this book actually has quite a bit in common with The Expatriate) sort of takes a backseat to an orgy of violence in this issue, coming off less Sam Spade and more Dirty Harry. Which is fine, but it's not exactly what I was hoping for after the first issue. Noto's art is still wonderful and stylish and pretty much unique in comics; I can't wait to see what he does next (a guest stint on The Expatriate would be great). It's too bad that Palmiotti basically destroys the unique world he created for the story at the end of this issue; it'd be an interesting setting for future tales.

Runaways #4 (Bryan K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona, Marvel)
This was a stronger issue than the last two, with Vaughan taking what appeared to be odd characterization of some of the Excelsior characters in the last issue and showing it to be character evolution. I really hope he either keeps those characters around or gets to write them into their own book. The dialogue was crisp as ever, and the revelation about Victor's parentage, while not a huge shock, does open some interesting doors.

X-Men #170 (Peter Milligan/Salvador Larroca, Marvel)
This issue wraps up one of the most disjointed story arcs ever in a very anticlimactic fashion. Paul O'Brien says it well: I want to like Milligan on this book, but he's nearly unable to tell a coherent story. I planned to drop the book if the first arc failed to impress me, but it's been so up and down that I'll give it one more issue before I decide.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Movies opening this week

Madagascar (Voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, dir. Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
By now, everyone's pretty much aware of the Pixar=awesome and DreamWorks=crass, empty commercialism dichotomy, so I don't think we need to go over it again. This isn't nearly as bad as Shark Tale, but it's totally forgettable. I really think a big part of the problem with these movies is the pathological need to shoehorn in big stars for all the voices without regard for whether they are right for the parts. All the main voice actors totally phone it in here. I think a throwback to the days when actors who specialized in voice work played most of the roles in animated features would breathe some life into some of these movies. As I said to someone today, where is our modern Mel Blanc? The way animated films are cast nowadays, we'll never get one. Wide release

Friday, May 20, 2005

New comics 5/18

Cable & Deadpool #15 (Fabian Nicieza/Patrick Zircher, Marvel)
Last issue felt a little rushed and light on the humor, but this one is back on track, with some great lines from Deadpool and some much-needed additions to the supporting cast. I'm not sure there's a great need for yet another alternate universe, but I trust that Nicieza will have it go somewhere interesting, and probably bring in more underused Marvel universe characters that I'll be happy to see.

Ex Machina #11 (Bryan K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
I must not have realized that last issue was the end of a story arc, because I was completely surprised to discover that this was a stand-alone issue, with only a couple of panels addressing what happened in #10. It was okay on its own, but the stuff from "Tag" feels very unresolved, and this was a jarring shfit from last issue's bloodbath to a much more low-key tale.

Young Avengers #4 (Allan Heinberg/Jim Cheung, Marvel)
Now that the shock of how good this book really is has worn off, I didn't have quite the same glee reading this issue as I did the past few. Much of it is a big fight scene, although Heinberg does an excellent job of dropping little details here and there about the main characters, who were all such mysteries in the first issue. I like the slowly evolving team dynamic, and even if this issue didn't end with quite the wallop as the first ones, I still can't wait to find out what happens next. This remains one of the best examples of superhero writing at Marvel right now.

Also out this week: Livewires #4. I had planned on finishing this series out, but looking at it in the store I just had zero interest. I was so impressed with Adam Warren when I first read his Gen 13 mini-series, but after two of those, a Dirty Pair collection and half of Livewires, I've come to realize that his characters are all the same, his jokes are repetitive, and his stories have no plots. Some of Livewires was amusing, but not enough for it to be worth the time and money it would cost to finish it.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Movies opening this week

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor, Ian McDiarmid, Natalie Portman, dir. George Lucas)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
There are a couple of little indie movies opening in Vegas this week, but I didn't get around to seeing them, and of course no one gives a shit about anything this week except Star Wars. Seriously, I am sick to fucking death of talking about this movie and its concomitant cultural phenomenon. I already declaimed on the general subject of Star Wars in this post, and my thoughts on the movie are all in the review. In a nutshell: Eh. If you like it, though, please, see it, enjoy it, but don't talk to me about it. I'd really like to move on. Really, really wide release

Monday, May 16, 2005

Weekend viewing

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Robert Fuest, 1971)
Sublimely ridiculous Vincent Price horror movie, with Price as the titular doctor, who speaks through a hole in his neck and designs insane, baroque death traps to exact revenge on a group of doctors whom he blames for his wife's death. There are probably a million other Price movies I should see first, but a friend recommended this so I figured I'd give it a whirl and I was not disappointed. It's full of surprisingly sly humor, awesomely over-the-top set design, and Price acting his ass off without even moving his lips. How can you beat that?

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Enterprise finale and the future of Star Trek

I've been an intermittent Star Trek fan since I was 13 or 14, watching the last few seasons of The Next Generation fairly regularly, really getting into Deep Space Nine (my personal favorite), watching one or two seasons of Voyager and seeing all the TNG movies in the theater. I've caught various original series and older TNG repeats from time to time, and seen about half of the original series movies. It's weird how there's this impression about Trek fans that there are only two positions to have about Trek: Either you are an obsessed fan who can quote inane trivia at length, or you have no interest in the franchise. Say "I'm a Star Trek fan," and people immediately assume the former. Nevertheless, I'm a genuine casual fan, which means I like it but I didn't hesitate to stop watching Enterprise after the first season failed to impress me.

Which means it's been a few years since I watched the latest Trek incarnation, although that didn't stop me from tuning in to the show's finale on Friday. I never watched the Voyager finale, but the Enterprise finale is different for two reasons: One is that it's essentially the finale of the whole franchise, at least for now, and the other is that it featured a controversial connection to the TNG cast and characters. Some fans are outraged by the episode, and Jolene Blalock, who played Enterprise's Vulcan T'Pol, went so far as to call it "appalling." Something like that I couldn't pass up watching.

I guess I don't care enough about Trek right now or Enterprise in particular to be actually appalled by the finale, but it's clear that Trek stewards Rick Berman and Brannon Braga (who inspire virulent hatred in a certain set of the franchise's fans) misconstrued what fans want and how to give a proper send-off to the show that some people, at least, have invested four years in. As some have noted, connecting the show with TNG characters would have sent some fans into ecstasy were it in a different episode; much of the supposed strength of this last season has been attributed to tying the show closer to Trek continuity. But a show's finale shouldn't feature that show's characters as secondary, no matter what you think of them. Furthermore, Berman and Braga failed to make the TNG connection feel anything more than cursory; if it had more weight and resonance, it might be easier to justify.

Then there was the death of Trip Tucker, the ship's engineer and by many accounts the show's best character. Killing a character in a finale almost always seems cheap to me, although sometimes it does add more weight and resonance if done properly. But like the TNG connection, Trip's death felt cursory and pointless, an easy way to make the episode seem more important than it really was. Ultimately Berman and Braga did a disservice to Enterprise's loyal viewers, if not to Trek fans as a whole.

I never liked Enterprise that much anyway, so I wasn't too broken up about the way the finale was handled or the fact that it was going off the air. Like many Trek fans, I think giving the franchise a rest is a smart move. Enterprise always suffered from the same problems as the Star Wars prequels, I thought, in that the writers were always constrained by having to leave the universe pretty much where everyone knows it ends up in the shows and movies that take place later. When the Enterprise writers strayed from that and tried to strike out in new directions, it only served to damage what I think is the greatest thing about the larger Trek franchise: Its impeccably crafted sense of history and continuity.

I ruminated a little on the future of Trek in this column, but I didn't really have enough space to get into it deeply. I do think the rest period is important, but I think what's more important is what they come back with. To me, Enterprise was a sign that the producers had run out of ideas, and it was never thought through thoroughly enough to work, as evidenced by the clear continuity issues. I think the stand-alone movie idea that has been mentioned is smart, and I think if they do another show it should also be substantially different in concept from the previous ones. Ideas that have been bandied about forever, like the Starfleet Academy show or the show that focuses on outlaws in the Trek universe, are good, but I think almost more important than the concept is the team behind the scenes. Both in the films and the series, a strong new voice is needed. I think the smartest thing to do with the next Trek film would be to hire an already established director with a clear personal style who has a distinct vision for Trek. There have to be filmmakers out there who grew up Trek fans and would love to have a crack at the franchise. The James Bond producers were stupid not to give Quentin Tarantino a shot when he basically begged to do a Bond movie; Trek producers should find their version of Tarantino.

For the next show, the same thing should apply. Find an established TV writer-producer and let them have creative freedom, with Berman and Braga either not involved or very much in the background. I think Trek as a universe and a concept has almost limitless life left in it; the trick is to find creative talent with just as much life to reinvigorate it.

New comics 5/11

Astonishing X-Men #10 (Joss Whedon/John Cassaday, Marvel)
The ending of the last issue worried me, since the whole "Danger Room comes alive and attacks the X-Men" plot seemed a little cliched and uninteresting, and unfortunately in this issue Whedon doesn't do much to convince me otherwise. At least he brings back the S.W.O.R.D. subplot with the aliens from the Breakworld, and hints at an overarching storyline for the whole first year's worth of issues. The bulk of this issue, though, is the X-Men fighting the Danger Room, which, while Cassaday makes it look pretty, is mostly just your standard fight scene, peppered with some of Whedon's sharp dialogue. Not the series' best issue.

Captain America and the Falcon #14 (Christopher Priest/Dan Jurgens, Marvel)
The series sort of putters to its conclusion, and I'm pretty much past caring. Priest finally manages to make me the political nuances of Captain America somewhat interesting, but it's too little too late. I feel like this was a series that never really found its footing, changing artists constantly and lacking direction in the plotting. I do like Priest's take on the Falcon, though, and I hope this issue's ambiguous ending will lead into his much-rumored Falcon series, and that Marvel will finally give him the chance to really develop a series that he hasn't had since Black Panther ended.

Desolation Jones #1 (Warren Ellis/J.H. Williams III, DC/Wildstorm)
Ellis finally launches a new ongoing series, and it seems like this will be the true heir to Transmetropolitan. His recent Marvel superhero work has left me cold, so I was greatly looking forward to this. It doesn't disappoint, although it's full of stock Ellis-isms, and the main character is your standard Ellis appalling bastard protagonist. Still, the concept is intriguing, Williams' art is, as always, breathtaking, and I hope that the ongoing format and creator-owned status will allow Ellis to cut loose like he hasn't in quite some time.

Fables #37 (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham, DC/Vertigo)
The Boy Blue story continues to offer an interesting glimpse into the Homelands, and allows Buckingham to cut loose with some absolutely wonderful fantasy artwork. Willingham seems to be leading up to some big revelations about the Adversary and I'm sure he'll deliver.

Mnemovore #2 (Hans Rodionoff & Ray Fawkes/Mike Huddleston, DC/Vertigo)
More creepy atmosphere with not much in the way of explanation. I have a feeling this will read better in a collected edition, but two issues in I might as well stick it out. The concept remains intriguing, and Huddleston's art is evocatively creepy; I just hope Rodionoff and Fawkes can back up the strange set-up with an equally interesting follow-through.

The Rann/Thanagar War #1 (Dave Gibbons/Ivan Reis, DC)
The last of the Infinite Crisis tie-ins to launch, and honestly the one I found most accessible. Gibbons effectively conveys the epic scale of the galactic war, explains fairly clearly who the players are, and sets the stakes. Reis' art is also good at illustrating the scale of the battles, and the book looks very nice overall. It's still not enough to get me reading further issues, since I don't care enough about the overarching event, but it's the first of the tie-ins that hasn't made me feel hopelessly lost.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Movies opening this week

In the Realms of the Unreal (documentary, dir. Jessica Yu)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Not that I'm complaining about smaller movies making it to Vegas (I was kind of lukewarm on this one, but whatever), but sometimes I wonder about the logic of releasing a movie such as this, which has the look of a well-made PBS special (not surprisingly, it will air on PBS's POV in August) in theaters barely a month before it hits video. Who's paying nine bucks to see this on a big screen? Someone is, I guess, but it seems like an odd move to me. Opened limited Dec. 22; in Las Vegas this week

Mindhunters (Kathryn Morris, Jonny Lee Miller, LL Cool J, dir. Renny Harlin)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Like pretty much every Harlin film, this is getting torn apart by critics. It did sit on the shelf at Miramax for over two years, and is probably only getting released now because of the housecleaning that's going on with the departure of the Weinsteins. But dammit, Harlin deserves better. The art of crafting an awesomely trashy movie is not widespread in Hollywood anymore; most trashy movies are just trash. And plenty of Harlin's movies are that, too, it's just that when he actually pulls something fun and entertaining out of his ass (like this one, or Deep Blue Sea), most critics are too biased to realize it. Wide release

Monster-in-Law (Jennifer Lopez, Jane Fonda, Michael Vartan, dir. Robert Luketic)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Things like this make me wonder: A friend of mine requested that I take him and his girlfriend to the screening of this film, because the girlfriend really wanted to see it. So, good friend that I am, I brought them along to what I expected would be a terrible movie (and it was). My friend hated it. His girlfriend, however, had a great time. The audience, too, laughed uproariously at nearly every joke. At another screening the next day, I overheard the theater's promotions manager telling some people about how he had just seen Monster-in-Law, and how much he loved it. He specifically went on and on about how great the joke about the size of J. Lo's butt was. Now, I'd really like to believe that the average movie-goer is not this dumb or tasteless. I don't want to become one of those elitist critics who look down on the unwashed masses and their inability to appreciate Czech art movies or whatever. In particular, I'd like to think that my friend's girlfriend doesn't have hopelessly horrible taste in movies (sadly, though, that's not true; her taste is appalling).

Apparently my friend and his girlfriend had a long discussion after seeing the movie, in which she defended her enjoyment of the movie by bringing up the alleged gender divide in movie appreciation. She likes these crappy romantic comedies, she argues, while guys like crappy action movies. And I really hate this argument. Because liking crappy action movies is just as bad as liking crappy romantic comedies. They're both evidence of poor taste, and Hollywood just loves the idea that there's this impenetrable gender divide that allows them to make different types of crappy movies that people will defend on some bullshit idea of gender identification. Liking crappy movies is lame, whether you're male or female. Excusing your taste by essentially saying, "Well, all men/women like these kinds of crappy movies" is even worse. The opposite is true, too, of course; hating all romantic comedies because they're "too girly" or all action movies because they're "too macho" is ridiculous. There are some really charming, well-written, funny romantic comedies with solid character development. Robert Luketic has even directed two of them (Legally Blonde and the underrated Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!). And of course there are exciting, well-written action movies with solid character development, too, although sadly I can't think of too many recent ones. Using stereotypes to excuse poor taste is sad, and exactly what big studios want you to do. But I can't erase all the people in the theater who laughed during this movie (including that incredibly annoying promotions guy, who's a man, so he has no stereotype excuse). And that makes me sad. Wide release

Monday, May 09, 2005

Weekend viewing

Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, 1993)
Del Toro is a director I always feel like I should like, but all of his films end up leaving me feeling sort of underwhelmed. I keep watching more in hopes of being more impressed, and now I've seen all of them without getting there. This one again has flashes of things that interest me, but overall it sort of left me cold. Del Toro has an interesting take on the vampire concept, which is so far from the traditional ideas that I'm not even sure it qualifies as a vampire story at all. I think that's the problem I had with this movie - it's not sure if it wants to be a creepy cautionary tale, a goofy horror-comedy, or a supernatural meditation on aging. It tries to be all three and doesn't quite succeed. Still, like most del Toro films, there was enough for me to like that I'll watch whatever he does next in hopes of finding that undefinable quality that will make me like it as much as I think I should.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

New comics 5/4

Fallen Angel #20 (Peter David/David Lopez, DC)
Peter David has all but confirmed that the series will be continuing (most likely at IDW), so it's less disappointing that these last two issues have been a bit of an anticlimax. Honestly, with the resolution in issue 18, I would have been satisfied with the series just ending there, although I'll definitely pick it up in its new incarnation. This issue does at least advance some new subplots along with tying up the Sachs & Violens guest appearance, but as a closer to the series it's definitely less than satisfying.

G.L.A. #2 (Dan Slott/Paul Pelletier, Marvel)
There's a better balance of humor and seriousness than in the last issue, and Slott again succeeds in making these goofy characters interesting. He wallows a little excessively in obscure Marvel continuity, which I can appreciate because I'm familiar with a lot of it, but is sort of self-indulgent. Overall, though, this is stronger than the first issue, and is a fun superhero read with nice art and some great humor.

Villains United #1 (Gail Simone/Dale Eaglesham, DC)
Again, I am only reading these Infinite Crisis tie-ins because DC keeps sending them to me, and this one once again is full of characters I've never heard of referring to incidents I know nothing about. It is perhaps a little more accessible than Day of Vengeance and The OMAC Project, and Simone has a flair for snappy dialogue, but it's still just a small part of a larger story that hasn't grabbed my interest, and as such I doubt I'll bother with future issues (unless DC keeps sending them for free).

Y The Last Man #33 (Brian K. Vaughan/Goran Sudzuka, DC/Vertigo)
Sometimes I get complacent reading this book and then Vaughan pulls another crazy twist and forces me to sit back up and pay attention. This was one of those times. Not that the twist at the end of this issue was as shocking as some have been in the past, but I at least didn't see it coming, and it made me look at this somewhat low-key arc in a new way. I also like the way the relationships are developing among Yorick, Dr. Mann and 355, and I loved Yorick's sad acknowledgement in this issue that the death of all the males means he truly has no friends. The poor guy keeps hooking up with the wrong women, and he does so again here, but it always leads the story in interesting places.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Movies opening this week

Crash (Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, a bunch of other famous people who want Oscars, dir. Paul Haggis)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I definitely hated this movie, although I didn't find it quite as vile as other self-righteous, pretentious films like Spanglish and The Upside of Anger. I don't have trouble necessarily with Haggis' overall message, that racism is still prevalent in our society and colors many of our social interactions, and that it's sometimes a cover for other emotional problems. That's all true and there's nothing wrong with pointing it out. The problem is that Haggis points it out over and over for 113 minutes, completely blinded to the possibility of any other motivations existing for anything anyone does, ever. By turning race and racism into the be-all, end-all of human interaction, he actually ends up belittling it. Because the problem with racism isn't that it's out there, front and center, in all of our interactions, but that it's insidious and sometimes unconscious and mixes in with all the other thoughts and feelings that go into how we deal with one another. That's the philosophical problem. Dramatically, the problem is that Haggis is so single-minded in pursuing his profound thoughts on racism that he creates completely unbelievable characters who exist only to provide whatever lesson Haggis is looking to promote. This is the worst kind of preachy, ineffective film, because people clearly think it's profound (most reviews are glowing). I didn't much care for Haggis' work on Million Dollar Baby, but at least that script had the advantage of Clint Eastwood's direction and some classy acting. Haggis' direction is sloppy, and most of his actors overdo it. I think I probably didn't convey my vitriol well enough in my review; both A.O. Scott and David Edelstein offer more elegant take-downs than I was able to manage. Wide release

Kingdom of Heaven (Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, dir. Ridley Scott)
I'm not much for these period war epics in general, although I liked Gladiator and I think that Scott can be an excellent director given the right material. He doesn't really cut it here, though, and the best moments are all done better in Gladiator anyway. I didn't mind Bloom as the hero, who is this kind of soft-spoken, reluctant leader; I thought he had the right amount of gravitas while retaining the right amount of innocence. Someone like Russell Crowe probably wouldn't have worked in the part. But the story is so confused; Scott makes the Crusades into this battle for human rights, and while I admire the sentiment the writing isn't clever enough to get the politics into the story in a way that makes sense. No one would give the speech that Bloom gives about defending Jerusalem not for God, but for men; it just wasn't the way anyone thought back then. I think those issues ultimately take a back seat to the fact that it's just plain not a very good movie, slow and boring and with uninspired battles. Rent Gladiator instead. Wide release

Palindromes (Sharon Wilkins, Ellen Barkin, Debra Monk, dir. Todd Solondz)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Most people seem to have these very strong opinions about Todd Solondz, but seriously I could give a shit. I saw Welcome to the Dollhouse a while ago, and I remember being very underwhelmed. I didn't hate it, but it wasn't some revelation to me as it was to many. I never saw Happiness or Storytelling, and I don't have much of an urge to. As far as this one goes, some critics really hated it, but I am somewhat sympathetic to Solondz's nihilistic viewpoint, so what bothered me mainly was the narrative device of having the main character played by all the different actors. It was distracting far more than it was illuminating, and it just served as misdirection from the fact that Aviva was annoying and uninteresting. I think Solondz's main problem is less his toxic worldview than his increasing inability to tell a compelling story. Opened limited April 13; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, May 02, 2005

Revisiting Star Wars

Yes, everyone and anyone is posting about Star Wars right now. Darth Vader even has a much-linked blog of his own. My excuse is that I watched the previous five Star Wars films out of professional obligation over the last two weeks, to prepare for reviewing Revenge of the Sith, and now I feel the need to unburden myself. I hadn't seen the original trilogy since its last theatrical release in 1997, and Episodes I and II since their original releases in 1999 and 2002, respectively. Were it not for the aforementioned professional obligation, I doubt I would have watched the films again for a long time, if ever. I notice, though, that George Lucas has this way of re-packaging his movies every few years, so that even those without professional obligations feel the need to watch the movies again, whether for geek cred or just to keep up with pop culture or mainstream cinema. The point is, I resent being made to watch these movies so many damn times as some sort of cultural requisite.

Not that I hate Star Wars. I'm a sci-fi fan and, sure, a geek, so there's a certain inherent appeal for me in movies about space ships and laser blasters and aliens and cyborgs and all that. I like a popcorn movie if it's done well, and while I vastly prefer Star Trek or Blade Runner or the Alien series or the first Matrix, I can appreciate the appeal of the original trilogy on a fun, adventure-serial level. But the cultural weight and fannish obsession attached to Star Wars just baffles me. Sitting down with these movies again, I was struck first of all by how hokey, stilted and amateurish the original trilogy, especially A New Hope, is. The writing, even when Lucas handed off screenplay duties to others, is atrocious. So many of the complaints lodged against the newer films are easily borne out in the original trilogy if you take off your nostalgia blinders. Anakin is whiny in The Phantom Menace? Check out how whiny Luke is in A New Hope. The Anakin/Amidala love story is stiff and underdveloped? It's Romeo and Juliet compared to the Han/Leia love story, which amounts to two or three scenes of bickering followed by a declaration of love.

A friend of mine kept insisting to me, while I was complaining to him about watching these movies, that The Empire Strikes Back really does live up to the hype, that it alone is a truly great movie. And, sure, it's the best of the original trilogy and probably the best overall. But it's only the best because it's an incomplete picture of Lucas's vision. It ends on a down note, but that's only to set up the redemption in Return of the Jedi. It's not a movie with a sad ending, or a movie in which the bad guys win; it's a transition between two movies with uplifting, happy endings in which the good guys triumph. It would never exist on its own, and all of its great story beats are either great in how they contrast to what happened in A New Hope, or undone by what comes later in Jedi.

As for the newer films, I do think they aren't nearly as inferior to the old ones as people make them out to be, but that doesn't mean that they're any good. The Phantom Menace is easily the worst of the whole series, although it's got a few thrilling sequences (the pod race, the battle between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn) and the effects and design sense are breathtaking. Not only are there obvious improvements in technology, but I think in general the design of the sci-fi elements (droids, ships, aliens, cities) in the newer films is superior to the older ones. The main problem, of course, is the plotting. Even in Attack of the Clones, when there is a clearer villain and a clearer engine driving the story, it is harder to tell immediately what is at stake and what drives the characters to do what they do. In the original trilogy, the breakdown is simple: The Empire is bad, the Rebels are good, and the Rebels must defeat the Empire. Black and white (for the most part), just like the old serials that Lucas was emulating. But in the new trilogy, the threat is more subtle: It's about backroom political dealings, business alliances and subtle shifts of power. Not that subtlety is bad; it's just that it certainly isn't something that Lucas does well, and what should be subtle comes off only as confusing. I challenge you to give me a concise summary of the plot of The Phantom Menace.

Maybe Revenge of the Sith will change all that. Despite my better judgment, I find myself getting a little excited about it. It will, like Empire, be dark, even if that darkness is only in transition to the triumph of the original trilogy. It will have a clear plot, with clearer good and bad guys (or so it seems). Maybe it will have some better writing and acting, although with Lucas handling the screenplay and direction, I'm skeptical. Mostly, though, it'll mean that once I see it, I'll be free of my obligations to watch these damn movies again.

Until, that is, the 3-D versions come out in 2007. Damn you, Lucas!

Sunday, May 01, 2005

New comics 4/27

Day of Vengeance #1 (Bill Willingham/Justiniano, DC)
I only even bothered with this and any other Infinite Crisis stuff because it came in the mail from DC publicity. I have little to no interest in this crossover, and, since I know comparably little about DC universe minutiae, I doubt I'll get much out of it anyway. That suspicion was borne out reading Countdown and the first issue of The Omac Project, and again here. I like Bill Willingham, and I like mystical characters, but this is bogged down in obscure continuity that means nothing to me and plotting sent down from on high, so all Willingham is really doing is filling in the blanks. This apparently had roots in a supernatural team book Willingham proposed once, and as a stand-alone entity that would probably be a good read. But as a cog in a machine I already don't care about, this isn't worth my time.

Otherworld #2 (Phil Jimenez, DC/Vertigo)
I wasn't all that thrilled with Jimenez's first issue, but I figured I'd give him another chance since I got the first one free. This isn't much better, though, as I still can't tell any of the characters apart, so I don't care what happens to them, and Jimenez has failed to engage my interest in the overarching mystical plot either. His art is still wonderful, and he's still giving himself all manner of cool and weird things to draw. If this were four issues I might stick around to see how the story turns out, but I'm not reading 10 more issues just in case it might get interesting.

The Pact #1 (Jim Valentino, Image)
I'm a sucker for Image "universe" crossovers for some reason; I guess I always really liked the idea that these creator-owned characters could form their own universe like the DC and Marvel ones. I read Shattered Image, a pretty good series written by Kurt Busiek, and Valentino's own Altered Image, which wasn't nearly as good. Most of the characters involved in those series aren't at Image anymore, which illustrates one of the main problems in making a shared universe out of creator-owned properties, and the big-gun Image characters that are still at the company (Spawn, Savage Dragon, Witchblade, etc.) don't show up in this series. Instead we get a team formed with Invincible, Firebreather, Shadowhawk and Zephyr from Noble Causes. As first issues go this is okay, with a pretty generic superhero story setting up a basic team formation. Valentino does manage to get a little but of each character's unique backstory in there, and if this were a set-up for an ongoing I'd wait a little bit to see what happens. But it's actually four issues by four different creative teams (one by each of the characters' creators), so I have a feeling it will end up being four unrelated stories that are probably fun but inconsequential (like this one). I'm not really sure that's worth my money.

X-Men: Phoenix - Endsong #5 (Greg Pak/Greg Land, Marvel)
This series started out well but kind of fizzles out at the end, with the conclusion little more than a "clap if you believe in fairies" device that is hokey and anticlimactic. Still, Pak has told a story that feels more important than what's going on in any of the main books, and done so mostly with engaging writing. I found Land's artwork too stiff and airbrushed at first, but it's grown on me, and I'd be interested to see both of them tackle more X-Men stuff in the future.