Sunday, January 29, 2006

New comics 1/25

Black Gas #1 (Warren Ellis/Max Fiumara, Avatar)
I gave up on Ellis's Avatar stuff a while ago, after finding Strange Kisses sort of amateurish and gross, but the premise of this series (Ellis's take on zombies) was enough to get me to give it another go, since I generally like his stuff. This is a perfectly okay first issue, pretty much all set-up, and Fiumara's art is decent enough, although it does look a little rough at times. Since this is only three issues, I'll probably stick with it out of curiosity, even though most of Ellis's three-issue minis for larger publishers have ended up sort of trailing off into nowhere. Also, most unfortunate title ever.

Fallen Angel #2 (Peter David/J.K. Woodward, IDW)
I'm still not crazy about Woodward's art, which, like much painted art, looks too stiff, and still for some reason has everyone bathed in celestial light or something. Otherwise, there are some excellent twists and turns in this issue, and David does a good job of explaining what's going on for people who didn't read the first volume or (like me) don't remember every detail from it. I suppose it's too much to hope either for David Lopez to return on art or at least for some more traditional line art, so I'll just live with Woodward's stuff, which isn't that bad anyway.

Nextwave #1 (Warren Ellis/Stuart Immonen, Marvel)
Now this is more of the thing I like to see from Ellis. Really, with a few very minor tweaks this could have been a creator-owned book from Wildstorm, but Ellis clearly takes a certain perverse joy in setting it in the Marvel universe. Some people were going nuts about Ellis using these C-level characters in a disrespectful way, but to me he wasn't mocking the characters at all, just letting them cut loose and be fun. This is in many ways a parody of a superhero comic, but it's also got its own internal logic and works on both levels. It was certainly funnier than anything Ellis has written since Transmetropolitan, and, along with Fell, suggests that he's finally found some new ideas to engage him again. On top of that, Immonen's angular artwork with inks by the always excellent Wade von Grawbadger reinvents his style in a really impressive way that complements the story very well. Even the letters page, with its fake letters from historical figures, is amusing, although since I imagine that Ellis wrote it, I was disappointed not to see a letter from Thomas Edison.

The Pulse #13 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Gaydos, Marvel)
Eh, whatever. I was so excited at the beginning of this storyline that some of the old Alias mojo was back, but by now this issue reads like two completely separate comics - one of which features a storyline (the birth of Jessica and Luke's baby) that belongs in New Avengers and is way too cluttered with guest stars, and the other of which (Ben Urich tracking D-Man) is the kind of thing that I liked about Alias way back when and was hoping Bendis would bring back. The result is to make both stories seem less consequential, and since the D-Man story wraps up quickly this issue, I'm not sure what Bendis has in store for his final issue next time. No matter what, I think this series will go down as a schizophrenic and failed follow-up to the brilliant Alias, and I really doubt that Paul Jenkins can come in and turn it around.

Revelations #6 (Paul Jenkins/Humberto Ramos, Dark Horse)
Wow, what a disappointing ending. I even almost regret putting this on my top ten of 2005 list, that's how much this issue annoyed me. I really liked how, in the previous issues, Jenkins told a fairly traditional whodunit against the backdrop of the Vatican. There was a murder, and a detective, and clues, and all that, as well as some interesting ruminations on faith. What really appealed to me was that this wasn't some supernatural story about demons and the battle between good and evil; it was a murder mystery in a very high-profile location. There are enough comics about demons and such that one that's just about who killed some dude is refreshing. Well, that's all thrown away in this issue, in which it turns out that Satan was behind it all along. We don't get any sort of satisfactory resolution to the story, and we don't even get to deal with the ramifications of the supernatural revelation either. It's just a terrible ending to a mostly good story that nearly negates all the interesting stuff that's come before it.

Savage Dragon #122 (Erik Larsen, Image)
I'm sort of amazed that this actually came out. To give you an idea of how late this is, Larsen is still dealing with the ramifications of his election storyline that was launched to parallel the actual election - in November 2004. Anyway, I was surprised at how easily I was able to follow this issue despite how long it's been since I read the last one. As always, Larsen packs a lot of story into one issue, although given how long the wait has been I sort of felt like not enough happened, and I don't know when I'll get to see the continuation of what does transpire. That aside, it's another rip-roaring superhero tale in Larsen's inimitable style, and he once again engages in some experimenting, this time with a couple of pages that painstakingly recreate the style of cheesy Silver Age superhero comics and add something to the story as well. I'm always pleased to read an issue of this book, and I hope this is a sign that it will return to a more regular schedule.

The Surrogates #4 (Robert Venditti/Brett Weldele, Top Shelf)
I've been slacking off in writing much about middle chapters in mini-series, but I wanted to note that this is a particularly good issue of a very good series, which wraps up next month. Venditti has done a very good job of crafting a well-realized future world here, and has come up with a very compelling mystery as well. This issue builds strongly on that mystery and ups the suspense while taking time to explore some of the moral issues brought up by the world the book takes place in. As long as there isn't a big let-down next issue (as with Revelations), this has been an excellent story, and one of the best sci-fi series in recent memory.

Also out this week: Spider-Man/Black Cat #6, which means the series is finally complete, and I'll probably sit down to read the whole thing (and be predictably underwhelmed) some time soon.

Movies opening this week

I know, I know, it's late.

Annapolis (James Franco, Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster, dir. Justin Lin)
I'm really disappointed in Justin Lin. I know a lot of people thought Better Luck Tomorrow was overrated, but I liked it a lot, and I'd hope to see Lin at least attempting to make movies that were, if not clever and socially relevant, perhaps, y'know, competent. This is one of the quickest slides into Hollywood mediocrity I've ever seen, and since Lin's next film is The Fast and the Furious 3, it doesn't look like he's really concerned about working on meaningful projects. Wide release

The Matador (Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Hope Davis, dir. Richard Shepard)
It's odd to me that they are pushing this for awards consideration, since it's an incredibly lightweight and forgettable movie, with not much aside from some charming performances to recommend it. The plot is amusing but doesn't quite hold together, the dialogue is only about half funny and the characters are pretty broad. Still, I found it mostly entertaining and a passable diversion, if not something that deserves any sort of official accolades. Opened limited Dec. 30; wide release this week

Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Kelly MacDonald, Thomas Sangster, dir. Kirk Jones)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Another pleasant but ultimately forgettable film, a nice one to take the kids to that won't drive adults crazy but probably won't fascinate them either. Thompson brings a little of her Jane Austen sensibility from her Sense and Sensibility screenplay to the table, and the movie on the whole is very British. It's nice to see a major release in January that isn't awful, and is actually perfectly good. By the standards of the month, it's practically a masterpiece. Wide release

Transamerica (Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Elizabeth Peña, dir. Duncan Tucker)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Even though I saw this film about a month and a half ago, the hype was already in full swing, so I found it a little disappointing. Not that I didn't like it, but it's so conventional and predictable in so many ways that it loses a bit of its potential impact. I also wasn't quite as impressed with Huffman's performance as many people seem to be, although I warmed up to it as the movie went along. I do think that what at first seemed a bit false to me was the right note to strike, since this is a character who is working hard to sound like a certain conception of normal, and thus would probably sound a little off. Even if there's a lot about this movie that's sort of underwhelming, it's still got a lot going for it and is very much worth seeing. Opened limited Dec. 2; in Las Vegas this week

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Weekend viewing

Havoc (Barbara Kopple, 2005)
A friend of mine with an, um, enthusiastic interest in Anne Hathaway insisted we rent this film, and I agreed not because of the chance to see the star of The Princess Diaries topless, swearing and having sex, but because I read in a couple of different places that this was one of those movies that got lost in the shuffle and deserved a better fate than going straight to video. Richard Roeper even said that he'd have it on his best of 2005 list if it had gotten a theatrical release. It was written by Stephen Gaghan, of Traffic and Syriana fame, and Kopple is a well-respected documentarian making her fiction debut. All of this sounded great, but in reality the movie ended up like a feature-length version of the Topher Grace/Erika Christensen scenes in Traffic, only without Steven Soderbergh's accomplished direction. It's sloppily plotted and poorly paced, and while I think Anne Hathaway is a very talented actress who's clearly got a strong career ahead of her, it's probably best that this movie went largely unseen.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

New comics 1/18

Ex Machina #17 (Bryan K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
Vaughan, like he did with 9/11 in the first issue, takes real world events and tweaks them in an interesting way, this time focusing on the war with Iraq. It's a little strange at first to see Vaughan's superheroic characters mix with real-world political figures, but it does give his story a sense of urgency and importance, and I'm more excited about where this storyline is going than I have been in a few issues.

Noble Causes #16 (Jay Faerber/Fran Bueno, Image)
This has about three different twist endings piled on top of each other, which seems like something that would be annoying but actually works very well for Faerber's soap opera format. It's more about action than sex and romance in this issue, which is fine since we've been kind of low on that recently, but I'm happy to see some lip-locking on the cover for the next issue.

Runaways #12 (Bryan K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona, Marvel)
After one overlong arc and one very short one, the sojourn to New York storyline wraps up in just the right amount of space, offering a satisfying conclusion, an ominous hint of what's ahead, and an apparent set-up for a new Cloak & Dagger series (something I'd love to see Vaughan writing). Vaughan uses some fun continuity references again and keeps up some of the simmering subplots. In short, another excellent issue.

Testament #2 (Douglas Rushkoff/Liam Sharp, DC/Vertigo)
I was sort of baffled but semi-intrigued by the first issue, and since I got it for free it seemed worthwhile to buy the second issue and see if it got any more comprehensible. The answer: nope. I mean, the primary plot with the authoritarian future and the people controlled by RFID chips, that was pretty straightforward (if sort of cliched), and I got it. But I still have no idea what the biblical parallels are supposed to mean, or what the weird little creatures on the sidelines are doing, and I don't really care to find out. Maybe Rushkoff is trying to create suspense and mystery, but I'm just confused and bored, and I'm not going to bother with the next issue.

Also out this week: Planetary #24, which didn't make it to my local shop. Given how infrequently that book ships, though, I don't think it'll be too big of a deal to wait another week to read it. And Generation M #3, which continues the mini-series on the path it's been going in a mostly interesting fashion.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Movies opening this week

Match Point (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode, dir. Woody Allen)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This is one of those movies that I worried wouldn't live up to its hype and my personal expectations as a Woody Allen fan, but it definitely did. At first the cynicism and coldness is a little off-putting, but eventually I found it bracing and engrossing. One of my colleagues said that he likes Allen because Allen is "an amoral atheist," like himself, and I think I probably fall into that category as well. Opened limited Dec. 28; wide release this week

The New World (Colin Farrell, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale, dir. Terrence Malick)
About a month and a half ago, I saw what was supposedly the final cut of this film, a 150-minute version that was screened for awards consideration and opened on three screens in New York and L.A. on Christmas Day. It was wonderful - a lyrical and haunting love story, an eloquent ode to nature and condemnation of man's encroachment upon it, an effective period recreation and a truly transcendent moviegoing experience. I put it at the top of my best of 2005 list with no hesitation. I told everyone who would listen about how great it was, with that kind of personal investment that you get when you see something that affects you so powerfully and desperately want everyone else to see the same thing. Then, a few weeks ago, reports surfaced that Malick was cutting 15-20 minutes from the film before the wide release, which to me sounded like a recipe for disaster. But since it was Malick pushing for the changes and not the studio, I remained optimistic. There wasn't a screening of the new cut locally, so I haven't seen it, but I did get an email today from fellow critic N.P. Thompson rhapsodizing about how much he loved the movie, and he saw the new cut. I may go check it out just for curiosity's sake at some point, but I'm glad to hear that the film's power and integrity remain intact. Seriously, ignore any negative reviews you might read and go see this movie right now. Opened limited Dec. 25; wide release this week

Monday, January 16, 2006

Weekend viewing

The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985)
It was just kind of serendipitous that this showed up in my Netflix queue so soon after I saw Match Point, although this could not be a more different example of Allen's work. It's light and breezy and almost ridiculously insubstantial, a silly romantic comedy that comes in under 80 minutes. I found it entertaining enough, and I liked the tribute to the transformative power of the movies, but the plotting was a little haphazard and the jokes were a little weak. Not Allen's best work, but a nice little film with a strong performance from Mia Farrow and a fitting bittersweet ending.

I also watched Tim Burton's commentary on the recent two-disc DVD of Batman, which is one of my favorite films. I've never been big on watching DVD commentaries, since I'd generally rather spend my time watching a movie I haven't seen before or even just watching the movie itself again. But I got this DVD for Christmas so that I could check out the special features, and since I've seen the movie so many times anyway, it seemed like a good way to kind of half-watch the film while learning something at the same time. I love Tim Burton, too, but the commentary was pretty weak. He had a few interesting points to make about the way he saw the characters, and a couple of insights into the filmmaking process, but he just repeated them over and over again. The rest of the time he rambled pointlessly, trailing off in mid-sentence half the time. Toward the beginning of the movie, he noted in reference to something else that he wasn't a particularly good communicator, and the commentary certainly bore that out. Maybe this is why I stick to just watching the movies.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

New comics 1/11

Cable & Deadpool #24 (Fabian Nicieza/Patrick Zircher, Marvel)
Deadpool fights Spider-Man, and that's pretty much it. I like that this is a stand-alone issue, and it has plenty of Nicieza's trademark humor, but it's not much of a story. It also features another Nick Fury appearance, and I really wish Marvel would get his continuity straight. Is he in hiding after the end of Secret War? Is he back in charge of SHIELD? What? I suppose it's possible that this was resolved in some book I don't read, but I doubt it. It doesn't seem that hard to just send out a memo or something. Also, on a more positive note, this is Zircher's last issue, and he's put in quite the impressive run on this book, almost two straight years with I think a single half-issue fill-in and no lateness. That's quite the feat for an artist these days, and he'll be missed.

Daughters of the Dragon #1 (Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray/Khari Evans, Marvel)
This has gotten some negative reviews elsewhere for its cheesecake art and cavalier approach to continuity, but since I'm not all that familiar with these characters I didn't notice any continuity discrepancies, and I found the art to be mostly in good fun (although a little over the top, certainly). This book reminded me most of all of Danger Girl, with its emphasis on action, sexy women and jokey dialogue. There was what to me seemed like a good use of some D-level Marvel villains and underused supporting characters, and a fun little story. Not great, but entertaining enough for me to pick up another issue.

Desolation Jones #5 (Warren Ellis/J.H. Williams III, DC/Wildstorm)
Even though there is a four-page sequence in the middle of this issue in which Jones explains what has happened so far in this storyline, I still have only a vague idea of what's going on. I imagine that some of that is intentional, given Ellis's homage to the nigh-incomprehensible The Big Sleep, but still, I think this whole thing has dragged on a little long, and I'll be glad to see it wrap up next issue so that Jones can get on to doing something new. Spending a whole year on one storyline (thanks to the bimonthly shipping schedule) has been a little much. At the same time, this was still a good read, thanks to Ellis's weird ideas, Williams's inventive artwork and an illuminating sequence at the beginning that explains some of Jones's origin.

Fables #45 (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham, DC/Vertigo)
This is a sort of anticlimactic end to this storyline, with the Arabian fables kind of getting shuffled off to their own little world, and taking King Cole with them, who emerged as a much more interesting character in this arc. I have no doubt that they'll all show up again in due time, but for now this was a disappointing issue, even if it does set some subplots in motion for the future.

She-Hulk #4 (Dan Slott/Scott Kolins, Marvel)
After last issue's giant-sized extravaganza, I suppose this was an inevitable let-down. Juan Bobillo takes a well-deserved break, and Kolins makes for an acceptable fill-in, even if his art is a bit mushy. The story, however, is a little too earnest and straightforward, filling in a gap between the two volumes of the series and playing off events from Geoff Johns' Avengers run (which I never read). It's not bad, but it's kind of dull and pat, and lacks much of the humor that this book does so well. The end finally introduces the time-tossed Avenger that was teased last issue, and he looks like he'll add some spice to the book, so that's promising, at least.

Also out this week: DMZ #3, but even after planning to give the series one more issue to spark my interest, I just couldn't muster enough enthusiasm to buy it. It's too bad that all of these recent launches from Vertigo have been so lackluster (even the best, The Exterminators, wasn't spectacular), because I like that they are trying new genres and new talent and wish the pay-off was more satisfying. I'm still holding out hope for Steve Seagle's American Virgin, which launches in March, I believe.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Prisoner

This is one of those shows that has an almost mythical reputation, that people talk about as groundbreaking and revolutionary, and know all sorts of details about even if they've never seen it. I, too, knew the whole dynamic of the secret agent kidnapped and held in the mysterious, idyllic Village, designated only as "Number 6" and lorded over by the diabolical Number 2. I even knew that when, in the final episode, Number 6 finally confronts Number 1, it turns out that Number 1 is, in fact, himself. Which sounds like a really creepy and awesome way to end a series, and really everything about this show, which ran on British TV in 1967 and 1968, sounded like something I would love.

There are only 17 episodes in the entire series (I've been renting mostly short-lived shows from Netflix for now so I don't have to invest too much time), and I was prepared to really like it. Even after I was less than impressed with the first few episodes, I chalked it up to knowing too much about what was going to happen before watching, and the need to get used to the sometimes cheesy production values. But by about halfway in, I realized that I just didn't like the show. I watched the whole thing, hoping to find some of the brilliance that I'd heard about and hoped for, but it just got increasingly annoying. I told a friend of mine that I was watching The Prisoner and he said he had loved the show when he was in high school, when he'd always watch it while stoned.

It seems like the kind of thing that's more enjoyable if you're on drugs, and was perhaps created while on drugs, especially some of the later episodes. The early episodes are incredibly repetitive and formulaic, with each one following Number 6 as he devises some new plan to escape the Village, sets it in motion and almost makes it to freedom, only to be thwarted at the last minute. By the later episodes, they seem to realize that this formula can only go on for so long, so the solution is to have the plots become ever more random and incomprehensible. One episode is set in the Old West. Why? Hey, the Old West is cool. And perhaps Patrick McGoohan had recently watched a Western. The show has no episode-to-episode continuity except at the very end, and no recurring characters except for Number 6 himself and Number 2's mute midget butler (there is a different Number 2 in almost every episode).

By the time I got to the two-part finale, I was just annoyed. Nothing made any sense. It looked like they were making shit up as they went along. I realize that there is supposed to be some profound statement in this show about the way that society represses the individual, and the way that people create their own prisons in the way they live their lives, and whatever, but really it just came across as, "Dude, what if the butler was, like, a midget?" Sadly, aside from a couple of mildly interesting episodes and McGoohan's steely, secret agent acting, this was a big disappointment.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Movies opening this week

Hoodwinked (Voices of Anne Hathaway, Glenn Close, Patrick Warburton, Jim Belushi, dir. Cory Edwards)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm sort of amazed that this horrible piece of crap is getting some good reviews. This is the perfect example of January dumping-ground fodder, a bargain-basement kids movie with bad production values, pathetic writing and phoned-in voice performances from celebrities. Sadly, many parents will probably take their kids to this thinking it will have elements to amuse them, like the Shrek movies. They will seriously regret their decision. Wide release

Innocent Voices (Carlos Padilla, Leonor Varela, Xuna Primus, dir. Luis Mandoki)
I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that Mandoki has been engaged in Hollywood hackery for most of his career, since this is a polished and often manipulative film that knows exactly how to tug on your heartstrings (it's pretty much impossible to make a movie in which little kids get shot and not make it emotionally affecting). As annoying as that was at times, I think overall the movie worked, and felt more real than something like Hotel Rwanda. Yes, there are stupid contrivances, and the main kid has a retarded best friend, but it did chronicle the horrors that children deal with during wartime (it's set in El Salvador during a long civil war), and illuminate the practice of armies conscripting children. It was even relatively politically balanced; although clearly on the side of the rebels over the government, the movie doesn't portray the guerillas as saints, and ultimately the message is the trite (but true) old hippy-dippy chestnut: War is unhealthy for children and other living things. Opened limited Oct. 14; in Las Vegas this week

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Weekend viewing

Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, 2003)
I'm pretty sure this is the first Iranian film I've ever seen, and it's certainly a striking introduction to the cinema of that region. At first glance this film seems aimless and almost inert, but it paints a slowly building portrait of both one man's inner torment and the dehumanizing life of the working class in Tehran. Panahi uses some stunning long takes and sometimes interminable scenes to illustrate the combination of boredom and mistreatment that leads to the breakdown of soldier-turned-pizza delivery guy Hussein. Even just the scenes of Hussein and his hoodlum buddy riding their motorbike through the tangled traffic paint a revealing picture of everyday life in a city that's an uneasy combination of opulence and oppression.

The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2003)
Some review that I can no longer place described this movie as a collection of Russian film cliches, and that's essentially what it is. Not that some of it doesn't work - Zvyagintsev creates an effective air of melancholic mystery, and the stark cinematography is often beautiful - but this is a film that delights in being obtuse for no apparent reason, and after a while, when it became clear that the motivations and actions of the characters were not going to be explained, I just got exasperated. Somewhere in here is a sort of interesting meditation on not appreciating what you have until it's gone, but it's buried under too many layers of obfuscation for me to much care.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Judy Irving, 2003)
It was interesting to watch this movie having seen Grizzly Man not all that long ago, because the subject of this film is really not much different from Timothy Treadwell, except that Treadwell got eaten by a bear so he's not around to defend himself. Really, though, Mark Bittner is about as nuts as Treadwell, and also has the potential to be as charismatic and endearing. The main difference is that his objects of obsession are parrots, who aren't particularly dangerous. He also communes with them in the middle of San Francisco rather than in the Alaskan wild, and the director of this documentary falls in love with her subject at the end of the film, while Werner Herzog listens to a tape of his subject's death throes. It's a rather fascinating dichotomy, especially given this film's sunny, cuddly tone. Despite the sense you get that Bittner may be completely bonkers, and the utterly annoying elevator-music score, this is a pleasant and entertaining movie that's hard to dislike, even if it feels more like a PBS special than a feature film.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

New comics 1/5

The Exterminators #1 (Simon Oliver/Tony Moore, DC/Vertigo)
This was definitely the best of the recent Vertigo launches (Loveless, DMZ, Testament), and the only one that actually made me excited to pick up the second issue. I'm not quite sure where Oliver is going with it, whether it's just a darkly comic story about exterminators, or whether it's a more science-fictiony tale of chemical-resistant superbugs, but either one is okay with me. He's got some weird and intriguing characters, clever dialogue and an odd enough premise to suggest going any number of directions. Plus pleasant, straightforward art from Moore. I'm optimistic for a long run from this one.

Y the Last Man #41 (Brian K. Vaughan/Goran Sudzuka, DC/Vertigo)
I was very confused at the beginning of this issue, because it starts in the middle of some crazy action and I was sure I'd forgotten what happened before. But it's actually just a jump ahead from last issue, and is only a framing device to tell Agent 355's origin. Which is not all that exciting, unfortunately. It doesn't really reveal much about her personality that we don't already know, nor is it a particularly gripping story on its own. Definitely a disappointing issue, and the second in a row where Yorick barely even appears. After the last two detour issues, I'm hoping things move forward again next month.

Also out this week: Down #3, although I somehow missed issue two, so I'll wait for that before reading them both.

Movies opening this week

Breakfast on Pluto (Cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Ruth Negga, dir. Neil Jordan)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I like Jordan's ambition, and I think he's made some really good movies, but this misses the mark. It's obvious that they tried to condense a novel into a two-hour film and weren't exactly sure how to do it. Some of the little magical touches, like the talking birds, were endearing, and it made me wish that Jordan had taken the film in a completely magical realist direction. His combination of whimsy and seriousness didn't work, but if he'd made it even more over the top it might just have succeeded. Opened limited Nov. 16; in Las Vegas this week

Casanova (Heath Ledger, Sienna Miller, Oliver Platt, Jeremy Irons, dir. Lasse Hallstrom)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
For some reason, I had sort of high hopes for this one, even though Hallstrom has been directing snooze-worthy prestige pictures for years now. The early word at Venice was that it was light and fun and not at all like his other films. But it turns out to just be a light-hearted version of those bloated, bloodless dramas. A few funny moments, but overall the strain of hoping for awards and recognition outshines the entertainment value. Opened limited Dec. 25; wide release this week

Hostel (Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjonsson, dir. Eli Roth)
I liked Roth's Cabin Fever, so I was looking forward to this despite the fact that it wasn't screened for most critics. It starts out seeming like a critique of obnoxious American tourists, with the two sexist, homophobic, xenophobic lead characters engaging in enough lewd and crass behavior that you sort of get excited for their eventual disemboweling. But by the time the torture and murder rolls around, Roth has muddled the message and turned the crass Americans into the people we're supposed to sympathize with, and the movie itself has taken on a tone of xenophobia. Like Cabin Fever, this is a movie about the fear of a foreign culture - in that film it was rural Americans, in this one it's Eastern Europeans. At least Cabin Fever had a certain sly self-awareness about it, but this is played mostly grim and straight, and when some humor does show up toward the end, it's too little, too late. Horror fans might find something to enjoy in the effective and gruesome torture scenes, and Roth gets points for at least attempting social commentary, but this is far too generic to be a worthy follow-up for him. Wide release

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Weekend viewing

Head-On (Fatih Akin, 2004)
This is another one that I've had sitting by the TV for a long time and finally got around to after seeing it on a number of top ten lists. It started a little slow and seemed for a bit to be going in a disappointingly conventional direction, but ended up a fairly unpredictable and powerful story about unexpected love. It's strangely subversive the way it sets up its protagonists as anti-tradition iconoclasts only to have them find true love in what is essentially an arranged marriage. The irony of the situation, especially for German Turk Sibel, isn't overplayed, though, instead just woven in as one element of the baffling and sudden onset of love.

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000)
And, speaking of the baffling and sudden onset of love, this is a lovely and incredibly romantic film that doesn't involve a single kiss or caress. I saw one of Wong's early films, Days of Being Wild, a few months ago, and found it chaotic and unfocused and a disappointment given all the praise I've read of his work. But this movie is as focused as a laser and heartbreakingly methodical in its portrait of unconsummated love. It might even be a good companion to Brokeback Mountain, illustrating another way that society in the past kept people in love apart. Like Ang Lee, Wong uses austere and measured camerawork to portray the unspoken gulf between his two protagonists. Unlike Days of Being Wild, this completely confirms for me all the wonderful things I've read about Wong's films.

The Witches of Eastwick (George Miller, 1987)
Sometimes I just want to watch a silly '80s blockbuster, and I suppose this fit the bill, although it's sort of surprising to me that it was considered one of the best movies of the year when it was released. It's a lot of winking at the audience about religion and sexuality while remaining tame and even sort of prude about what's actually on-screen, a ridiculously hammy performance from Jack Nicholson and a wildly inconsistent tone. One of those films that I imagine engenders fond memories in direct proportion to how long it's been since it was first seen.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Best of 2005: Movies

You can read my top ten films of 2005 list here, but it's buried in among all the other lists, so I'm reproducing it, along with links to my reviews of the films where applicable. Although I can wholeheartedly recommend all of the movies on this list, this was not nearly as good a year for movies, at least the ones I saw, as 2004. Last year I could have picked a top 15 or 20 fairly easily, but this year it was all I could do to come up with ten. Even though I've been able to focus more on movie reviewing at Las Vegas Weekly this year, I still only managed to see about 140 new releases, around the same number I saw last year. There are plenty of acclaimed films of this year, many of which never played in Las Vegas, that I didn't get the chance to see, and maybe some of those would change my mind about the overall quality of cinema this year. At some point, though, you just have to let go and finalize the list, so here's what I thought was best in 2005.

1. The New World
Terrence Malick's wonderfully beautiful film about the life of Pocahantas won't be out in wide release until January 20, but it's easily the best film in a year that's had its ups and downs. With breathtaking visuals, astonishing performances (especially from newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher) and heartbreaking romance, Malick's film transcends its historical context and becomes a deeply moving meditation on love and tradition.

2. A History of Violence
Thoughtful and gruesome, David Cronenberg's deconstruction of violence in America is a haunting triumph.

3. Nobody Knows
This story of Japanese kids forced to fend for themselves finds poetry in the everyday, while perfectly capturing the innocence and intensity of childhood.

4. Sin City
More than just a comic book come to life, this is a funny, dark, inventive and exhilarating film experience from Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller.

5. Thumbsucker
Mike Mills makes a striking debut with this insightful and well-acted drama that takes familiar ideas about suburbia and presents them in a fresh way.

6. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Comedies rarely get the respect they deserve, but this clever madcap mystery from Shane Black deserves plenty.

7. The Aristocrats
In exploring the endless variations on a famous dirty joke, Paul Provenza provides a surprisingly deep insight into the construction of comedy and the way its creators think.

8. Match Point
Woody Allen's latest comeback (which opens wide on January 20) is an uncharacteristically dark and restrained romantic thriller that explores what people will do to protect their comfortable lives.

9. The Exorcism of Emily Rose
A challenging philosophical musing in an unexpected package, and worth a second look from critics who blithely dismissed it as simplistic.

10. The Weather Man
Flawed and overly ambitious, but admirable for tackling probing questions about life and not flinching in the face of troubling answers.

Finally, a brief mention of my picks for the worst films of the year, in no particular order: Monster-in-Law, Crash, A Sound of Thunder, Chaos and The Producers.

New comics 12/29

Fallen Angel #1 (Peter David/J.K. Woodward, IDW)
I'm glad to see this book back on the stands, even if I have to pay an extra dollar for it and it's not clear whether it'll run past the initial arc. David delivers a strong story that marks a good jumping-on point for new readers and a clear break from the old series, since it takes place 18 years after the last DC issue. This is an interesting tactic, since none of the main characters appear to have aged at all (although Woodward's art makes it hard to tell at times), but it gives David the chance to age Lee's son and to change the status quo to represent a real fresh start. I don't think it's essential that we ever learn Lee's origin, but I'm interested to see what it is. I'm not crazy about Woodward's painted art, which does look pretty but has the stiffness of a lot of painted sequential art and is also sometimes a little indistinct. David Lopez's art on the original series, while not flashy, served the story better, I think. Still, all things considered, an auspicious return.

She-Hulk #3 (Dan Slott/Juan Bobillo & various, Marvel)
This was a good use of the over-sized issue, with the trial of She-Hulk really giving Slott a chance to show why she's a worthwhile character, and play around with continuity as he obviously enjoys doing. This was definitely the best and the funniest issue of the new series. All of the guest artists did good work, although seeing Paul Pelletier's pages did make me miss him as the regular artist on the book. I was a little on the fence about adding this to my pull list, but this issue clinched it for me. The back-up features (reprints of the first issues of The Savage She-Hulk and Sensational She-Hulk) were also fun reads. Savage was your typical Stan Lee stuff, with lots! of! exclamation points! and absurd plotting but an infectiously breakneck pace, and Sensational showed off a playful side of John Byrne that I haven't gotten to see before. I remember seeing issues of that series on the stands years ago when I started reading comics, and it always looked like fun. I wonder if there are any collections available.

Silent Dragon #6 (Andy Diggle/Leinil Yu, DC/Wildstorm)
This is an action-packed finale without a lot of twists or surprises, although I like that there's not a big romantic reunion, and things don't turn out all that well for Renjiro in the end. Although I liked this series a lot, I finished this issue with a bit of a "so what?" feeling. I think the middle issues were the strongest, when Diggle and Yu just cut loose with crazy action and snappy dialogue, and plotting maybe wasn't this book's strong suit. Nevertheless, it was one of the most entertaining mini-series in recent memory, and I remain disappointed that there probably won't be a follow-up.

X-Factor #2 (Peter David/Ryan Sook & Dennis Callero, Marvel)
It's only been two weeks since the first issue, but since that one was late I guess they wanted to get this out quickly to get things back on schedule. Thus we have a fill-in artist already, which is sort of disappointing since I like Sook's work (which is only on a few pages in this issue), and the two styles don't mesh that well. They don't even use the same inker, which is usually a good way to get a more consistent look. Callero's art is fine, though, reminding me a little of Michael Gaydos. David lays on the noir even thicker this issue and is revving up to another intriguing mystery. I'm still not sold on Layla Miller as a useful character, but otherwise this is delivering on the promise of the Madrox mini.

Young Avengers Special (Allan Heinberg/various, Marvel)
The second "jam" comic this week, not quite as successful as the She-Hulk issue, though. This is the comic book equivalent of a clip show, with a framing device featuring Jessica Jones talking to each of the team members as they recount their origins. It's a convenient way to get all of the origin stories out in one issue, and offers a logical reason for the multiple artists, but it does feel a bit forced, like all the "hey, remember when that happened"s in clip shows. Still, Heinberg's got a great ear for dialogue, and seeing him teamed up with Michael Gaydos on Jessica Jones makes me wish that he'd take over The Pulse after Brian Bendis leaves, instead of Paul Jenkins. This appears to fit just before the current story arc in the regular series, but aside from a little teaser at the end, it's not exactly essential. A relative disappointment from an otherwise strong series.

Also out this week: Revelations #5, which is the penultimate issue of the mini-series. I'll write a longer take when the last issue hits the stands.