Sunday, April 30, 2006

New comics 4/26

Astonishing X-Men #14 (Joss Whedon/John Cassaday, Marvel)
The cover, which has been making the rounds for what seems like months, turns out to be an annoying bit of misdirection, as Emma and Logan never actually lock lips in this issue. With no action, most of the story is given over to Emma's psychological deconstruction of Cyclops, which is disturbingly and effectively cruel, but I remain disappointed that Whedon is turning Emma back into a villain; I hope that by the end of this arc she's redeemed at least a little. We get some comic relief in the form of Kitty and Peter's first tryst, and while I think it was kind of a cheat to bring Colossus back, Whedon clearly writes this relationship very well. A few cliffhangers set up some big things to come, but overall this is one of the quietest issues in the book's entire run.

Runaways #15 (Brian K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona, Marvel)
I like how Vaughan shows the team essentially getting their asses handed to them by the new Pride in this issue, easily pitted against each other and divided. It emphasizes that they're still immature and untrained, and they can usually only beat villains who are unorganized and slightly inept. We know that a team member will die by the end of this arc, but even if we didn't, this issue would be excellent at creating genuine tension and dread.

Savage Dragon #125 (Erik Larsen, Image)
Larsen loves his giant-sized issues, and his formal experimentation, and this issue brings both. The lead story is a fairly straightforward Dragon tale, although Larsen's efforts at lettering are still a bit distracting. He ends up with the hero in the worst state he's ever been in (except for, y'know, that time he was dead), in a coma and with his healing factor on the decline. I like that Larsen is taking this whole depowering thing seriously, and dealing his main characters some tough blows. There are also a bunch of reprinted short stories in this issue, which I appreciated because I hadn't read them before. The Mr. Glum Sin City pastiche is especially clever. But the centerpiece is a bizarre experiment in panel repetition, 23 pages of the same drawing repeated over and over, six panels per page, with only minor variations in color and other small details. Larsen notes in the letters page that fans would probably have killed him if it was a whole issue in its own right, and he's right. I think the problem is that the dialogue, by a D-list villain who was turned into a fly, gets old and not very funny after a few pages, and that's all the story has going for it. Even if I didn't think it quite worked, I admire Larsen for constantly pushing the boundaries on modes of sequential storytelling and how it applies to superheroes, and I have no doubt that he'll come up with some innovative (and more effective) experiments in the future.

X-Factor #6 (Peter David/Dennis Calero, Marvel)
David sort of explains Layla Miller's background, but it honestly doesn't make her much more interesting. I don't find her as annoying as some do, but I still find her presence in this book rather superfluous, taking attention away from the more interesting characters that make up the rest of the cast. Still, this is better than last issue's one-note torture story, since David takes the time to develop subplots (which is always his forte). Once again, Calero's art doesn't really work for me, and I'm looking forward to the point when someone else takes over on a permanent basis.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Movies opening this week

Hard Candy (Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, dir. David Slade)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I first saw the trailer for this when I saw Hostel, and it immediately grabbed my interest. The more I read about it and the buzz built, the more excited I got to see it. It sounded like an intelligent and disturbing thriller, exactly the kind of movie I really like when done right. So I suppose it was inevitable that I ended up disappointed, but I think they really dropped the ball on this one. The way the movie resorts to cheap shocks and the pretense of depth, they might as well have just made a standard, gory horror movie; at least it would have been more honest. Opened limited Apr. 14; wide release this week

Lonesome Jim (Casey Affleck, Liv Tyler, Mary Kay Place, dir. Steve Buscemi)
This movie is a lot like Garden State, only mopier. There are some moments of dark comedy that made me laugh a bit, and Place is perfect as the passive-aggressive mom (she should really just play every mom in every movie), but a lot of times this movie feels like a pastiche of depressed indie dramedies about awkwardness. It's the kind of movie where no one can possibly have sex without someone walking in on them at the most inappropriate moment possible, and in its own way it's as predictable as any blockbuster. Affleck, while more subdued than his brother, still seems a little lost in the role of a guy who's pretty much a complete douchebag right up until the falsely optimistic ending. It's movies like this that make indie dramas seem like they all come off the same ugly digital video-fueled assembly line. Opened limited Mar. 24; in Las Vegas this week

Stick It (Missy Peregrym, Jeff Bridges, Vanessa Lengies, dir. Jessica Bendinger)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This was perhaps the only movie I was anticipating more than Hard Candy in the last few months. I know it seems like an odd choice, but Bring It On, which Bendinger wrote, is one of my favorite movies of all time, and this obviously strives to capture some of the same magic. The problem here is that it strives way too much - it's obvious that Bendinger knows what a rabid following Bring It On has, and hopes to replicate its success. She's also got a clear agenda to lay out against the gymnastics establishment, and her efforts to get in all her social commentary along with the regular teen movie stuff are transparently desperate. Maybe it was the hand of director Peyton Reed as much as Bendinger's smart script that made Bring It On such a success, or maybe she just needs to get over her insecurity and relax a little on her next directorial effort. Either way, this doesn't deliver on the promise Bendinger showed in 2000, but I still have high hopes that she'll develop into a capable and intelligent mainstream female filmmaker - lord knows there aren't nearly enough of those. Wide release

United 93 (David Rasche, Ben Sliney, David Alan Basche, Trish Gates, dir. Paul Greengrass)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It's always tough for me to review films like this that get so much attention for reasons beyond filmmaking - political, social. I had the same hard time writing about Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ, for example, and I remember being sort of relieved that I didn't have to write a review of Munich. I'm not interested in engaging in political commentary and, luckily, Greengrass mostly isn't either, although there's a few pointed (but subtle) jabs at the President's unavailability on 9/11. Right after seeing this movie, I was impressed with its respectfulness and power, but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered what exactly there is to get out of this film. It doesn't teach you anything, it's not enjoyable or entertaining or enlightening, and it's not even really emotionally moving except in what you bring to it with what you already know about the events of that day. It's like going to a museum more than going to a movie, but I'm not sure how valuable a 9/11 museum is at this point. I ended up giving a mildly positive review, and I do think that if you want to go to the 9/11 museum, then you will get what you are looking for out of this film. But I also sympathize with what Dana Stevens talks about in Slate (and kudos to them for hiring her as David Edelstein's permanent replacement), that the film has no purpose and nothing to say, and that the positive response seems to be as much about obligation to honor the effort as any genuine appreciation. Wide release

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Weekend viewing

Bloody Sunday (Paul Greengrass, 2002)
Watched this for some background on Greengrass' style before seeing United 93. It's also a documentary-style recreation of real events, shunning things like exposition and character development in favor of immediacy and immersion. Unlike 9/11, the events in this movie (a civil rights demonstration in 1972 in which 13 Irish protesters were killed by British soldiers) aren't already familiar to me, so I was at times a little lost about what was going on. But overall the film does a very good job of giving you a sense of what it would have been like to be there at the time, and mostly avoids sensationalism. I found it interesting that it had a clearly political view sympathetic to the protesters, in a situation where the British government still denies that the army did anything wrong. It presents the protesters' version of events as the truth, which is given weight thanks to the documentary style. I have no doubt that Greengrass believes that's what really happened, but it's an interesting contrast to me to the mostly agreed-upon facts of what happened on 9/11.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

New comics 4/19

Ex Machina Special #1 (Brian K. Vaughan/Chris Sprouse, DC/Wildstorm)
I don't know if it's using the same colorist or if he's trying to change his style, but Sprouse's artwork looked so much like Tony Harris's that it wasn't until halfway through this issue that I realized it wasn't by the book's regular artist. Labeling it a "special" is really just a way to do fill-in issues without breaking Harris's run on the main title, and thus this is pretty much just a new Ex Machina arc, although it's mostly flashbacks. Vaughan once again shows his flair for the creepy with this story of the Great Machine's animal-controlling nemesis. It's a good story, although I wonder about the wisdom of giving Mitchell too many super-powered enemies, since one of the appeals of this book has always been his uniqueness as a superhero in his world, and I wouldn't want to see it become just another alternate superhero universe.

Nextwave #4 (Warren Ellis/Stuart Immonen, Marvel)
This is probably the least entertaining issue yet, I think partly because of the absence of Dirk Anger and partly because this arc's villain didn't have the great combination of humor and pathos that Fin Fang Foom did. Even a slightly off issue of this book is better than most of Marvel's other output, though, and Ellis gives us a hilarious and concise origin for the Captain, along with his usual humorous one-liners. The advantage of the two-part arcs is that next issue will already bring a new villain and a new chance for amusing ridiculousness.

Notes on last week's books: I thought Desolation Jones #6 offered a very satisfying and appropriately bleak conclusion to the first arc, even if I still couldn't follow all the plot mechanics. It was disappointing, then, to read that J.H. Williams III has signed on to be the new Detective Comics artist, and to see that there are as of yet no solicitations for a seventh issue. Warren Ellis promises an explanation soon, and I hope the book doesn't just fade away. Also, the second issue of American Virgin, while still not providing a clear narrative direction, definitely kept my interest enough to stick around a little longer. It's a solid book so far, but it's yet to blow me away.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Movies opening this week

Blame a nasty stomach virus for the lack of posts this past week, and the fact that I've seen essentially none of the new movies. Normal posting should resume shortly.

Standing Still (Jon Abrahams, Aaron Stanford, Melissa Sagemiller, Mena Suvari, Amy Adams, dir. Matthew Cole Weiss)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm honestly surprised that this movie has actually made it into theaters. I saw it almost a year ago at CineVegas in 2005, and was initially excited about it, because it was the first feature from the local production company Insomnia Entertainment, which is the first production company in Vegas with any kind of serious money behind it (it's backed by Tim Poster and Tom Breitling, the hotshot former owners of the Golden Nugget who were the subjects of the short-lived reality show The Casino). I was impressed that they had gotten some semi-recognizable stars for their debut, and the plot of this film - a group of twentysomething friends reconnecting as two of them prepare to get married - seemed right up my alley. So I was disappointed that it turned out to be such a weak effort and, worst of all, seemingly unprofessional, which was surprising given the money that went into it and some of the names involved. In my CineVegas review, I predicted it would end up going straight to video.

Well, here it is opening in limited release, and I imagine it's not going to be expanding very wide. I'm sure the only reason it's playing in Vegas at all is because of Insomnia's influence behind the scenes. It's just not a very good movie, but it's not nearly as bad as the company's second feature, Vegas Baby, which I also saw at CineVegas last year. That one was a complete embarrassment and totally incompetent and pathetic, and it's indeed going straight to video, with the title changed to the even more generic Bachelor Party Vegas. Insomnia, who announced all sorts of grand plans when they first started, seem to be in limbo, which isn't surprising given how badly their first efforts stumbled and how unprofessionally they seem to be running their company. After I panned their films at CineVegas, I got an expletive-filled email from the company's president, Trent Othick, who accused me of being jealous of his success, assured me that both of his movies were going to get major distribution and quite literally told me to go fuck myself. This from the allegedly powerful and connected president of a film production company to a film critic at a lowly alt-weekly - he asserted that I had absolutely no credibility in Hollywood, but took the time to write me outraged emails in response to my "insignificant" reviews. I'm sure Jerry Bruckheimer is up late at night harassing every critic who didn't like one of his $300 million-grossing action movies.

So it saddens me, really, to see Insomnia fail like this, even if I get a certain pleasure from knowing that such a genuine asshole as Trent Othick is doing poorly. I really hoped that this could be the start of a real, sustainable film industry in Vegas, producing something of a higher caliber than the no budget crap that most local filmmakers turn out. Sadly, it was still crap, just with a larger budget. Limited release

Friday, April 14, 2006

Movies opening this week

Game 6 (Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Griffin Dunne, Ari Graynor, dir. Michael Hoffman)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Ebert and Roeper have gone nuts for this movie, and it wouldn't surprise me if they were largely responsible for its getting as extensive a release as it has (and making it to somewhere like Vegas). The film's press kit includes a DVD of their entire segment on it, and they've mentioned it on at least one episode since the initial review. Other critics have been less enthusiastic, and I thought that overall the film didn't quite work, despite some strong performances and interesting moments. Still, it's heartening to see that at least certain critics can wield enough influence to help the prospects of a small film that they believe in. Opened limited Mar. 10; in Las Vegas this week

Gilles' Wife (Emmanuelle Devos, Clovis Cornillac, Laura Smet, dir. Frédéric Fonteyne)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I always tell the guys who own the comic book shop I frequent about the movies opening each week, and when I was describing this movie I mentioned that it was French and a bit of a downer and sort of slow, and one of the guys said sarcastically, "Oh, I love slow, depressing foreign movies," but the irony of course is that he really does love slow, depressing foreign movies. And I do, too. This isn't the best example of one, but it has a lovely lead performance and a really beautiful visual style. Opened limited Nov. 16; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, April 10, 2006

Weekend viewing

Brewster McCloud (Robert Altman, 1970)
Very odd and obscure Altman movie that he made right after M*A*S*H. A complete box office and critical failure, which isn't surprising if you've seen it. There are some interesting ideas here, I guess, but they're buried under dated parody, vague symbolism, a very, very long car chase and a weird obsession with bird shit. I did laugh at times, but overall I ended up baffled and mildly irritated rather than entertained or enlightened.

Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971)
I had no idea before watching this movie that a third or so of it takes place at my alma mater. It's sort of flattering to see Amherst portrayed as a hotbed of sexual debauchery in the 1950s, even though it's really just used as a signifier for "snooty New England liberal arts college" (a slightly less flattering distinction). As for the movie, I liked it better than Nichols' very similar Closer; I thought it did a much better job of creating real characters who might not have been likable but were at least relatable and real, and at times sympathetic. It's less explicit than Closer, but still pretty damn open about sexuality for its time. Plus you see a young Ann-Margret in the altogether, and that was probably enough for me right there.

New comics 4/5

Arch Enemies #1 (Drew Melbourne/Yvel Guichet, Dark Horse)
Wow, was this ever lame. I thought the concept sounded sort of amusing, with a superhero and a super-villain who are roommates in their secret identities but don't know it. I usually like books that offer twists on superhero formula, but this had really unfunny dialogue, annoying characters, a plot that went nowhere, and ugly art. I think I've seen Guichet's work elsewhere (I certainly know his name), but his exaggerated style definitely doesn't work for this kind of story; a more straightforward superhero style would probably better emphasize the twists on the genre, even if those twists are pretty lame on their own anyway. I just thought his figures looked crude and his storytelling was weak, although the writing is bad enough that the art probably couldn't have saved it. I will say that I thought it was kind of cool that the story started on the front cover, though.

Batman: Secrets #2 (Sam Kieth, DC)
I was less than enthusiastic about the first issue of this series, but Kieth seems to have found some of his old spark in this issue, and his art is looking better than it has in a while. I still wonder if Batman fans like this at all, because Kieth seems to be sort of molding the characters to his own story ends, but since I'm reading it for Kieth and prefer when he writes about his own creations anyway, I don't mind. Actually, the most interesting character is one that I assume is original, A.D.A. Terry Ammons, who falls in love with the Joker, and is one of your typical Sam Kieth damaged and overly sexual heroines. He writes those characters incredibly well, though, and even if this is still just a fairly typical Kieth story (and the added media criticism elements are rather clumsy), it's shaping up to be a good one, and it doesn't feel phoned in like his last couple of series. If it took writing about Batman to give his work some vitality again, then I'm all for it.

Ex Machina #19 (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
This is probably the most overtly political arc yet, with little focus on Mitchell's superpowers. Which is good, because Vaughan has a real handle on the behind the scenes maneuvering of politicians, and even though there isn't any supernatural threat, there's the sense that a lot is at stake here. Vaughan takes on some thorny real-world issues but doesn't preach about them, which makes for a tense and engrossing read.

The Exterminators #4 (Simon Oliver/Tony Moore, DC/Vertigo)
I suppose that since I'm still reading this book after four issues my reservations weren't strong enough for me to lose interest. Not that I don't still have reservations - this seems to be a book without a clear direction or a well-defined lead character, but Oliver's got enough creepy ideas and plot twists that it generally keeps my interest, and Moore is good at drawing nasty bugs. Unlike some of the other recent Vertigo books that bored me, this is at least entertaining enough every month, and that's enough to keep me buying it for now.

Planetary #25 (Warren Ellis/John Cassaday, DC/Wildstorm)
At this point I could probably just reproduce what I said about the last issue of Planetary and it would all still apply. Not remembering what happened in recent issues is even worse this time because there isn't much of a self-contained story; it's time for the endgame - there are, I believe, only one or two more issues left - so all of the threads are coming together and it's all very meaningful, I'm sure, only I didn't have any idea who the dude was that Elijah was talking to for the entire issue. I'm sure it'll all read better in one sitting, which is the only way I'm going to be able to appreciate it, anyway.

Young Avengers #11 (Allan Heinberg/Jim Cheung, Marvel)
It's amazing that after 11 issues Heinberg is still packing the revelations about the ways that the characters are tied to the original Avengers, and doing it with well-researched (and documented!) continuity references. He also manages to throw in another cliffhanger and plenty of action. I'm disappointed that this book will be going on an indefinite hiatus after the next issue, because I think that Heinberg's got a lot of stories to tell once he's finally revealed everyone's origins, and I hope the book doesn't get derailed just as it's getting started.

Y the Last Man #44 (Brian K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra, DC/Vertigo)
I am thoroughly enjoying this new storyline, which brings back the great cliffhanger endings, smart, snappy dialogue and Vaughan's trademark random exposition about obscure facts, which I always find endearing even if it's usually awkwardly shoehorned into the dialogue. Vaughan's really building a sense of something important happening as he heads into the book's homestretch (which admittedly is still a ways off, but we're clearly being set up for it).

Friday, April 07, 2006

Movies opening this week

Thank You for Smoking (Aaron Eckhart, Cameron Bright, Katie Holmes, J.K. Simmons, dir. Jason Reitman)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I saw this movie a while back so I could be prepared for my interview with Jason Reitman, and since then I've gone back and forth about whether it's brilliant or hilarious but empty. My review errs mostly on the side of brilliant, but I don't discount the idea that Reitman is really just putting up some very entertaining smoke and mirrors to mask the fact that what he has to say isn't all that substantive, as my friend Jeannette Catsoulis argues in her review. Opened limited Mar. 17; in Las Vegas this week

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Vacation viewing

I had last week off from work, which for most people might mean a trip out of town or something like that, but I hate traveling, so for me the week was all about sleeping and watching movies.

Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
Epic period pieces aren't usually my favorite genre, but this one mostly kept my interest for its 160 minutes, mixing a healthy dose of camp along with its sweeping angles, sumptuous sets and outsize emotions. F. Murray Abraham does a great slow burn as Salieri, the rival composer who was pathologically jealous of Mozart, and Mozart himself comes off sometimes as so silly that you sort of expect Falco to show up and start singing "Rock Me Amadeus" (which for years I thought was actually in this movie). It's a little underwhelming as a Best Picture and winner of eight Academy Awards, but Forman at least brings a little subversion to the trusty biopic formula.

Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
I'd been looking forward to seeing this movie for a while now, based on the rapturous reviews and a concept that sounded fascinating to me. So maybe it was inflated expectations, but I did not like it at all. It's not that I have a problem with movies that are obtuse or plotless - read below about how much I enjoyed Funny Ha Ha - but that the more I thought about this movie, the less it seemed to have to offer. It's fine, I suppose, that Haneke sets up a beguiling mystery and then fails to provide a solution (even if you pay really close attention during the final scene and catch what I missed and had to read about online, it still doesn't really clear much up). But what bothers me is that what he offers in place of a satisfying mystery story is a bunch of muddy allegory, characters who are little but mouthpieces and an unpleasant, unearned condescension.

It's hard to talk in specifics about the failures of this film without delving into spoilers, but I will say that I thought that the parallel between the dark secret in the main character's past and the injustices committed by white westerners on immigrants and Third World countries was not exactly, well, parallel. I just didn't buy Georges's deep dark secret as something to inspire such torture and recriminations, at least not in a way that it could equate to the slaughter of 200 Algerians by French police (the specific historical event referenced in the film) or the systematic repression of racial and ethnic minorities (the implied allegorical meaning). The political commentary is fairly one-note, and once you've either agreed with it or dismissed it, the rest of the film is an exercise in futility. Haneke does some interesting things with the camera, showing scenes from the mysterious video tapes that show up on the central couple's doorstep enough times that you start to question whether each shot is from the tape or a "real" depiction of the action. This isn't a movie about the deceptive power of images, though, which was the only thematic element that held my interest.

The Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan, 1984)
Weird early horror movie from Jordan, with a surreal, sexualized take on fairy tales, Little Red Riding Hood in particular. It doesn't so much work as a cohesive feature film, but certain individual bits are damn creepy and unnerving, and the effects hold up fairly well considering the time that's passed and the relatively low budget. Made me think of what The Brothers Grimm could have been if Terry Gilliam wasn't constrained by studio demands for things like plot and character development.

Funny Ha Ha (Andrew Bujalski, 2002)
I expected something completely different out of this movie, so it took a little getting used to at first. I am a sucker for talky movies about aimless twentysomethings, which is what I expected this to be, but although Bujalski's film may bear plot-level similarities to stuff like Before Sunrise and Clerks, its execution could not be more different. The hallmarks of those movies are overly articulate dialogue and excessive intellectualization of the most mundane things, but even though Bujalski's characters are all college graduates with (one assumes) keen pop cultural senses, his dialogue is the very opposite of overly articulate; most of the time, it's barely articulate at all. At first the style is a little off-putting, with every scene full of brutally awkward exchanges and repeated "I don't know"s and "I'm sorry"s. But after a while you start to see how real these interactions are, and how indicative of the ways that people are unable to connect with each other. The intellectual masturbation of those other movies is another distancing effect, and not necessarily any less real, but Bujalski's dialogue highlights the emptiness and desperation of so many everyday interactions, even with people we feel are our friends.

His aesthetic is often crude, as much a product of his tiny budget as a conscious choice, I would imagine, but the acting is generally quite accomplished, especially from star Kate Dollenmayer. The one thing that really pleased me was Bujalski's choice to shoot on film. It's the indie film default these days to shoot on video, so the warm look of film was almost a shock to me at first, and that combined with the grungy settings and naturalistic acting reminded me of early John Sayles, like The Return of the Secaucus Seven. This is a really polarizing film, and I can understand how it might annoy some people, especially since a superficial description of the plot makes it sound like a standard romantic comedy, but I found it captivating and I hope I get a chance to see Bujalski's undistributed second film, Mutual Appreciation, some time soon.

Gigi (Vincente Minnelli, 1958)
As I'm sure I've admitted before, I'm not exactly a fan of musicals; they're probably my least favorite genre, and I usually look at viewing them like taking some sort of movie critic medicine. But a regular reader has taken me to task for not being familiar enough with the genre, and she is right, so I am doing my best to occasionally throw in a musical in my regular viewing. This is, by most accounts, one of the greats, a winner of nine Oscars including Best Picture, directed by master-of-the-form Minnelli, with classic songs by Lerner and Loewe. I will say that I appreciated many of its better qualities, especially the excellent lead performance by Leslie Caron and the lush (almost overbearing) production design. Its endorsement of thirtysomething men marrying childlike teenagers didn't even bother me too much, since the characters are almost all desexualized (except Maurice Chevalier's dirty old lech, who sings "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," which I'd heretofore known only as a punchline for pedophile jokes). This is definitely a movie that wouldn't work if people weren't breaking into song every few minutes, because it has to be really over the top or it would just seem ridiculous. Did it make me love musicals? No, but I can see what's appealing about it.

House of Games (David Mamet, 1987)
This was the latest film I watched with my informal film-discussion group (does that not sound like the nerdiest thing ever?). Honestly, I've sort of had enough of David Mamet, especially after sitting through three episodes of his appalling new TV show The Unit to review it for Las Vegas Weekly. Mamet is one of those people whose work I was really impressed with at first because I felt like I was supposed to be, and also because it seemed just a little beyond my grasp and I therefore assumed it must be really brilliant. I'm not sure I ever actually enjoyed watching a David Mamet movie, though. Right around the time I watched Glengarry Glen Ross (which Mamet wrote but didn't direct), I realized that I think this guy is a massive fraud and I'm sick of trying so hard to find something to compliment about his work. His famous dialogue is empty and meaningless, his characters never seem like real people, and his plots are smokescreens. This film in particular doesn't necessarily deserve all that venom, since it's a straightforward con job thriller with a semi-appealing noir tone. But Mamet's direction guarantees stilted performances even from Joe Mantegna, and I didn't once care whether any of the characters pulled off their cons or got murdered in the process.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1934)
Fairly inconsequential early British Hitchcock, remade in 1956 as fairly inconsequential late American Hitchcock, although slightly better. This has the dry humor and incomprehensible plotting that marks Hitch's early British period, and as such has some fairly amusing bits. But the central orchestra scene is done better in the remake, and the climactic shoot-out in this version is interminable (although apparently inspired by some real-life infamous event, so maybe at the time it had some extra resonance).

Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1969)
I'm sure at the time this was released, with the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago fresh in people's minds, this was a fairly revolutionary film. It definitely presages a lot of indie film conventions, with its elliptical story, incorporation of real-world events (Wexler shot at the actual Convention and had his actors right in the midst of the riots) and long, impressionistic takes. But man is it boring and tedious. The only parts that are exciting are the footage of the Convention and riots, and that has nothing to do with the story of the listless romance between a TV cameraman and a naive West Virginia transplant. Wexler is primarily a cinematographer and secondarily a documentarian (this is one of only two narrative films he's made in his career), and this definitely plays like a movie made by a cinematographer, concerned more with striking imagery than with story and character. Some of the imagery is striking, but a lot of the political commentary (especially the media criticism) comes off as facile and hopelessly dated.

Nina's Tragedies (Savi Gravison, 2003)
An odd little Israeli comedy with some serious undertones, this is something of a trifle carried by the charming lead performance of Ayelet Zorer as Nina. It's got an almost magical realist tone with its mix of whimsy and melancholy, and ultimately the main problem is that the little kid narrator, who is in love with his aunt Nina, is only not a cipher when he's a rather off-putting jerk. It's nice to see an Israeli movie that's not about war or terrorism (although such things loom occasionally in the background), but I get the feeling that Gravison wasn't sure exactly what his movie was supposed to be about.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948)
For some reason I thought this was a sort of lighthearted adventure movie, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover a dark drama about greed and deceit, with Humphrey Bogart embracing nastiness as an American bum in Mexico who goes nuts over prospecting for gold. It's also got quite the bleak and rueful ending for a movie that was nominated for a bunch of Oscars and is considered a mainstream classic. I thought the middle dragged a bit, but overall it was an unexpected and very satisfying film.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

New comics 3/29

Fallen Angel #4 (Peter David/J.K. Woodward, IDW)
The origin of the Angel takes a rather predictable turn in this issue, but it's appropriate and fits with what we already know about her. I don't care if things are mysterious and thus never felt the burning need to learn the Angel's origin (or the Dragon's, either, speaking of another book out this week), but I know that some people can't stand not knowing something like that and thus David is appeasing them, and that's okay. Learning the origin doesn't necessarily take anything away from the character, it's just not a story that I find particularly fascinating. The present-day stuff, though, with Jude and Malachi, is interesting enough, and David is sufficiently tying it in to the origin as to not make the flashbacks seem gratuitous. At the same time, I'll be glad when the origin story is out of the way and things can move forward in the present.

Savage Dragon #124 (Erik Larsen, Image)
Larsen goes all out with the stylistic experimentation in this issue, which also happens to be the first one he's taken over lettering himself, finally filling every role in the creative process (he's been doing the coloring for a while now). While his coloring has always been competent and continues to improve, Larsen's lettering skills aren't quite up to par here, and clearly fall short of the stellar work he's had in the past from Chris Eliopoulos and John Workman. It ends up distracting from the story rather than integrating fluidly with the total package, which I imagine was Larsen's goal in taking over every aspect of production himself. His other experiments are more effective - he continues to flirt with pitch-perfect Silver Age style, mimicking even the paper stock and color schemes, and the two-page splash followed by the two-page 45-panel spread is pretty damn impressive. Larsen also continues to pulverize the Dragon mercilessly, making this strangely sadistic for such a colorful traditional superhero book. I'm still not quite sure where all the random interludes are going, but knowing Larsen they will build into an important plot point a few issues down the road.

Spike vs. Dracula #2 (Peter David/Joe Corroney, IDW)
Another entertaining little self-contained story, which I liked more than the first issue. It's refreshing that David is making each issue of this mini-series stand on its own while building a portrait of the ongoing rivalry between the title characters. It doesn't bother me as I thought it would that there is no real overarching narrative, and I like the jumps in time (the first issue took place in 1898, around the publication of the Dracula novel, while this one takes place in 1934, around the release of the Bela Lugosi Dracula film). I imagine we're going to see some more familiar Buffyverse characters as the chronology gets closer to the present day, and I look forward to that because David seems to have a pretty good handle on how to write them.

The Surrogates #5 (Robert Venditti/Brett Weldele, Top Shelf)
A satisfying if somewhat predictable conclusion, with the standard sci-fi messages about not trusting technology too much or allowing it to take the place of genuine human interaction, blah blah blah. It's actually much more affecting and effective than that makes it sound, even if the ultimate result is something slightly shopworn. Venditti is a good storyteller and a thoughtful futurist, and this story would probably make for an exciting movie. I'll definitely be on the lookout for whatever he does next.