Wednesday, May 31, 2006

TV season wrap-up, part the first

It's been so long since I've done a TV update that this is going to have to come in two parts, with part two posted later in the week (I hope). I'm not exactly timely on most of these anyway, as some of their seasons ended weeks ago.

Prison Break (Fox)
I didn't even watch the last five or six episodes of the season, since I got so fed up with the endless delaying tactics (although I guess they did finally break out). This is a show that was launched with the promise of a carefully planned arc that would play out in a meticulous fashion, but it became clear to me after the show got picked up for the full 22-episode season that there was some re-jiggering going on to delay the actual prison break until May sweeps. Even so, I might have kept watching if the writers had come up with interesting reasons to keep the characters locked up longer, or if the characters themselves were worth caring about. By the end, they seemed to me just like pieces of a plan that had clearly gone off the rails. This is a show that started with a great concept that it was never able to live up to in its execution, and I only imagine it will deteriorate further as it tries to hold the audience's interest with the characters on the run.

What About Brian (ABC)
When I saw the original pilot for this way back in summer 2005, I was absolutely blown away and couldn't wait to watch the show. By the time it made it to air, the pilot was changed significantly, and my excitement cooled a bit. Still, in my initial review, I wrote very positive things, although I wish ABC had given me more than one episode to go on. If they had, I would have written that this is a flawed show with a lot of promise but a lack of direction and an uncertainty about who its characters are. I really wanted this to be Felicity: The Next Generation (and the original pilot indicated that it could be), but the very short season didn't reach those heights. I probably would have been fine with the show getting cancelled, even though it seemed to be slowly finding its footing, but ABC issued a surprise renewal, so I hope the producers can finally live up to their initial promise with the second season.

Thief (FX)
Now here's a show nobody watched, and that really disappoints me. At only six episodes, this was one of the most engrossing, well-written, well-acted, complex and powerful shows of the entire season. Given FX's track record with dark adult dramas, it's sort of baffling why this show didn't catch on (although its similarity to the vastly inferior Heist, which premiered about a week earlier, might have something to do with it). Andre Braugher was amazing in the lead role as a criminal trying to do right by the daughter of his late wife, and all of the relationships on the show were well-developed and intricate. The use of post-Katrina New Orleans as a backdrop was a fortuitous (if you can call such a disaster fortuitous) coincidence, as the damaged city served as an apt metaphor for the damaged characters. The finale ended on an ambiguous note that worked as a nice end point without wrapping anything up too neatly (or at all). I know the chances are virtually zero, but if FX can rescue It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (and kudos to them for that), maybe they can give this excellent show another chance.

Veronica Mars (UPN)
There's been a lot of bitching among the uber-obsessive online fanbase of this show that this season wasn't nearly as good as the first, and that's probably true. But I think the extreme reaction of some fans, seeing betrayal and disgust in the show's direction this year, is misguided and infantile, which is probably not surprising for anything with such a cult-like following. Given how brilliant the first season was, and how complete its story arc ended up being, anything that Rob Thomas and his staff came up with for this year was bound to be a disappointment on at least some level. That said, I think there was a lot of really brilliant stuff again this year, and I'd still put this among the best two or three shows on TV. The mystery was a little too far-reaching and convoluted to offer the satisfaction of last year's Lilly Kane murder mystery, but I was satisfied with the solution and the motive, even if I thought the finale grossly misused the Beaver character in his final rooftop confrontation with Veronica. When I finally realized that Beaver was the killer (which was later than some, perhaps, because I wasn't reading spoilers), I thought it was a brilliant turn, a fascinating way to avoid repeating the first season's ending with the gleefully repulsive Aaron Echolls as the murderer (who got his comeuppance in a satisfying way, even if I'll miss Harry Hamlin's performance). Aaron was a cold-blooded sociopath, but Beaver was a damaged kid lashing out, and that was something new. But his maniacal stand-off with Veronica killed any lingering sympathy and made his ultimate suicide less moving. I still count this season as a success, though, and I hope Thomas goes into season three focused on character development as much as plot (the rumor that there will be shorter mysteries rather than a season-long arc seems to me a good sign).

Boston Legal (ABC)
In my post about the network upfronts, I neglected to mention that this is one of the returning shows I'm looking forward to watching next season. I think that's because it's not a big cultural phenomenon or an intricate drama that requires lots of attention to follow. It's just a fun show with interesting characters, fairly self-contained episodes and an old-school premise and structure. I was worried at the end of last season and the beginning of this one that the show was descending into Ally McBeal-style shenanigans, but it effectively pulled away from that (for the most part), and I imagine that David E. Kelley backing off writing every single episode had something to do with it. I still find most of the political preaching tiresome, even when I agree with it, but at least it's usually in character for the supremely moral (despite his reputation as a shark) Alan Shore. Mostly, this remains a great show about two things that rarely get explored in mainstream culture: male friendship and getting older. I think that Kelley is out to give work to every underappreciated actor over the age of 50 in Hollywood, and god bless him for it. This is a stealth pleasure, but it's a pleasure nonetheless, and a nice break from having to keep track of dozens of clues and plot threads on shows like Veronica Mars and Lost.

Monday, May 29, 2006

New comics 5/24

Nextwave #5 (Warren Ellis/Stuart Immonen, Marvel)
After last issue's mild disappointment, I was glad to see Dirk Anger back and ridiculous as always, and coming right after the Nextwave squad with all manner of insane, absurdist weapons. Ellis offers more concisely hilarious flashbacks, effectively skewering goofy Avengers villains and the '90s excesses of X-Force in one panel each. Plus, koala bears of death. You can't beat that.

Powers #18 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Avon Oeming, Marvel/Icon)
This epic storyline finally comes to a close, and this was a good issue and a satisfying ending, but man did it drag on about three issues too long. We get no satisfying answer as to the point of the random monologues, although at least this issue's monologue comes from the bystander to Millennium's death, and it relates to the main story and sets her up as a love interest for Walker, which is a nice bright spot to all the dark turns in this issue. It seems remarkably easy for them to finally solve the murder after all this time, although the solution makes sense and is an interesting new approach for the book. Whatever Bendis's faults, he always comes up with new and revealing realistic approaches to having superpowers. Deena hits rock bottom at the end of the issue, and it looks like the next arc will be all about dealing with her and Walker having acquired (or re-acquired) powers, which is long overdue.

She-Hulk #8 (Dan Slott/Paul Smith, Marvel)
With all the attention the New Warriors are getting as a result of Civil War, it really seems to me like Marvel is preparing for a new series for them, which would make me very happy. Slott once again proves his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure Marvel continuity, trotting out some of the least-known Warriors for this issue exploring the ramifications of the Stamford disaster for the team's myriad members who weren't on the scene. He also advances his ongoing subplot about She-Hulk and John Jameson being unnaturally attached to each other, and gets in a general response to Civil War as well. Smith is a welcome change on art, his classic style a perfect fit for this book. With Slott's ability to turn Hindsight Lad into a credible villain and his usage of Warriors Ultragirl (who I had never heard of) and Slapstick (come on, any comic with Slapstick has to be awesome), he just jumped to the top of my list of ideal writers to relaunch the Warriors.

Spike vs. Dracula #3 (Peter David/Joe Corroney, IDW)
I don't know what was up with the art in this issue, half of which was sketchy and rough, the other half of which was clean and soft, like the art in the previous two issues. At first I thought it was because Corroney shared the inking duties with someone else, but looking back at the last two issues, they're both credited as inkers for the whole series. So I have no idea, but the rough art is distracting, and Spike doesn't even look like Spike, especially with his dark hair. Otherwise, this is another solid issue, a little more serious than the last two, and it looks to be the first that isn't completely self-contained.

X-Factor #7 (Peter David/Ariel Olivetti, Marvel)
This is an improvement over the last couple of issues, thanks in large part to the absence of Dennis Calero on art. Olivetti is a much better replacement for Ryan Sook, even if it doesn't look like he's sticking around. The X-Factor versus Singularity storyline is still advancing at a snail's pace, but David does a nice riff on death being a temporary thing in the Marvel universe, with Siryn laughing off her father's death because she's certain he'll be back. He hints that it might all be an elaborate excuse to avoid dealing with the emotions, but at the same time, she's probably not wrong. It's a good example of a writer using continuity muddles and editorial fuck-ups to fashion a good story with some genuine emotion, and I'm impressed with David for his deft use of something that happened in another book.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Movies opening this week

X-Men: The Last Stand (Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Patrick Stewart, Kelsey Grammer, dir. Brett Ratner)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I think some critics have gone a little overboard in condemning this film for its differences from the first two. I definitely agree that it's a step down, and I think it's a shame that Bryan Singer wasn't able to stick around and finish out the series. But, as I said to a co-worker, if this were the first movie I would have said that they did a good but not spectacular job. And this is a fun, effective blockbuster with exciting action and good special effects, as well as a few good character moments and philosophical moments buried in there. Ratner is a hack, sure, but he's a hack who's more than capable of turning out a reasonably entertaining movie. Wide release

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Weekend viewing

Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik, 1983)
It's been a while since I've rented a pure horror camp-fest, and I did so on the recommendation of Slant's "Camp Horror" feature. The guys at Slant take their horror very seriously, and their tastes are offbeat enough that I don't expect predictable mainstream crap from something they recommend, even if it's not something I like. This was disappointing, then, for being a pretty typical '80s slasher flick, with the exception of a few bizarro touches and the totally unnerving ending, which was so shockingly in your face that it almost convinced me to like the movie. Alas, the preceding 84 or so minutes, with the exception of Desiree Gould's completely unhinged and seemingly out of place performance, are still too boring and clumsy to warrant redemption. I've still got some more of Slant's horror picks in my queue, though.

Monday, May 22, 2006

New comics 5/17

Fallen Angel #5 (Peter David/J.K. Woodward, IDW)
David spends a lot of this issue on theological musings, which are sort of interesting but have never really been this book's strong point. Learning the Angel's origin wasn't necessarily a mistake, but this issue comes dangerously close to the Alan Moore Promethea style of, "Here is my philosophy, which the main character will now explain directly to you, the reader." At the same time, there are a lot of significant and satisfying plot developments in this issue, and David sets up a new status quo with plenty of potential. I hope now that we've learned a bit of background, we can return to the mysterious intrigue and nasty bloodshed.

Fell #5 (Warren Ellis/Ben Templesmith, Image)
This is another entertaining issue, although one of Ellis's more annoying tendencies does finally reveal itself for the first time in this series: The bit in which the main character is such an awesome badass that all he has to do is talk to some antagonist to get him to not only surrender completely but also to admire and respect the main character. One of the most interesting things about Richard Fell has been that he is a beaten and down-trodden man, and this issue makes him seem just a little too bold, although the ending is sort of sweet and it does afford some further insight into his character. Still, for the first time this book feels like Ellis falling back on some of his old tricks.

Shadowpact #1 (Bill Willingham, DC)
I've been steering clear of most of these post-Infinite Crisis DC launches, but I really like Willingham's writing on Fables, and this is another book about an odd assortment of magical creatures, so I was considering giving it a shot. Plus it's Willingham's first regular art assignment in years, and even though I became familiar with his work solely as a writer, I was curious to check out his art as well. DC ended up sending a press copy, so I didn't have to decide whether to buy it, and the verdict is: It's not bad. It's not incomprehensible for someone who hasn't read Day of Vengeance, the lead-up mini-series, although I imagine that would have helped. It's got a somewhat engaging but somewhat generic set-up, and Willingham's art is pleasant if not exceptional. I'll definitely buy another issue to see if it gets more exciting, but it certainly doesn't compare to how much I enjoyed Fables when it began.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Movies opening this week

Brick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, dir. Rian Johnson)
I'm still not quite sure what to make of this film. It seems to be a love it or hate it proposition for most critics, but I didn't fall into either camp. I appreciated what Johnson was trying to do, combining the hard-boiled patter and convoluted plotting of old noir detective stories (and making it even more arch and stylized in the process, because he's a lot more self-conscious about what he's doing), and he did it so well that there were many times when I just sat back and appreciated his technical skill. There's a great deadpan humor to a lot of scenes in this film, not just the oft-cited staredown of death in the middle of a kitchen with mom serving orange juice. At the same time, it's hard to figure out what exactly the point of the whole exercise was, since Johnson doesn't really say anything insightful about high school by having teens talk like Bogey in The Maltese Falcon. It's a credit to the actors, especially Gordon-Levitt and Zehetner, that it works at all, since it's really more like one of those movie-making challenges ("The two genres you picked out of a hat are film noir and teen movie...and go!") than it is an organic story with real characters. Opened limited Mar. 31; in Las Vegas this week

The Da Vinci Code (Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Paul Bettany, dir. Ron Howard)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I find it tiresome that there's been such exhaustive and impassioned debate about a movie whose plot and execution most closely resemble something like National Treasure. Maybe it's just because I'm a godless heathen and don't understand religion, but I have no interest in the debate over Jesus' divinity, because I find the concept completely irrelevant. To me, this movie (and the book, which I read a couple of days before seeing the movie, and found just as terrible) doesn't inspire me to ponder deep issues about the nature of the world. Even if you're interested in theological debates, this movie reduces all of the complex and ephemeral issues of spirituality to the kind of logic puzzles you find in the backs of magazines at the dentist's office. Now that's profound. Wide release

Over the Hedge (Voices of Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling, Steve Carell, Eugene Levy, dir. Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
My standards for CG animated films from Dreamworks are so low that I was just glad this didn't give me a headache like Shark Tale or Madagascar. It definitely had the potential to be funnier and more tightly written, but as family films go nowadays, it's one of the better ones. Wide release

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Network upfronts

The annual announcement of fall schedules is a greatly anticipated event in my world, and probably the purest time of promise and unspoiled charm in TV, because at this point no one really knows how much most of these shows will completely suck, or how they'll get cancelled after two episodes, or how they'll turn into annoyingly pervasive cultural phenomena. Sometimes I wish they could all stay as potential shows that I'm curious about but will never have to watch.

Well, not really. But I do get Christmas morning-esque excitement each day reading about what the networks will have in store for me come September. The good thing about being a TV critic is that I will get to watch at least one episode of each of these shows, and there's inevitably at least one show that doesn't sound at all interesting to me from the description, but turns out to be really effective at whatever it does. The bad thing, of course, is that I have to watch at least one episode of each of these shows, and most of them will really, really suck.

Speaking of really, really sucking, I don't think there's a single show on Fox in the coming fall that I'm interested in watching, and that includes returning shows as well as new. I've already given up on Prison Break, which just got too redundant and ridiculous for me. I realize that they did finally break out of prison in the season finale, but I was already long past caring whether that happened, and of course now that the characters are on the outside, the emphasis is going to be on the conspiracy plotline, which always struck me as haphazard and ill-advised. But those overarching conspiracy plots, as well as 24-style gimmicks, are the hot things for new shows this season, and consequently have already lost whatever originality they once had. Fox promises that their new show Vanished "combines the investigative twists and turns of CSI, the nonstop pace and tension of Fox's 24 and the scope of The Da Vinci Code," thus naming three things I have no interest in whatsoever.

But if Fox and CBS (by virtue of renewing virtually everything they air) have little of interest to offer, at least NBC and ABC are desperate enough to pick up tons of new shows, and a couple of those have to turn out to be good, right? Probably my most anticipated new show of the season is NBC's Heroes (left), with Alias' Jesse Alexander as executive producer and a cast featuring Greg Grunberg and Adrian Pasdar, among others. It's another high-concept Lost rip-off, but it's a real-world take on superheroes, which is something I love in comic books, so I'm apt to forgive it any derivative tendencies.

I'm actually looking forward to more than half of the shows NBC picked up, including the pair of "behind the scenes at an SNL-like variety show" shows, Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Tina Fey's 30 Rock (right). Sorkin can be brilliant as long as he doesn't end up back in rehab, and Fey's Mean Girls was one of the smartest screenplays of the last few years. As long as these shows don't cannibalize each other's audiences, I think they could both thrive. I'm also giving cautious optimism to Kidnapped (another 24 copy, but it's got Karen Sisco's Jason Smilovic and Angel's David Greenwalt behind it) and midseason shows Andy Barker, P.I. (please redeem Andy Richter from the horror that was Quintuplets) and Raines (Jeff Goldblum as psychic detective? I am there).

Over on ABC, I'm still giving J.J. Abrams the benefit of the doubt, so I'll check out his new show Six Degrees (even though he's only onboard as an executive producer), which has a great cast, as does Brothers & Sisters (left), which also has good buzz and a killer timeslot (after Desperate Housewives). I love good relationship dramas if they're done well, and B&S looks to be one of the few new dramas without an annoying high concept.

I admit I'm also sort of looking forward to CBS's post-apocalypse drama Jericho (although CBS has a bad track record with genre shows) and Fox's midseason Rob Corddry comedy The Winner. Perhaps the saddest admission of all: The CW's new Kevin Williamson show Hidden Palms, set for midseason, pushes all my teen soap-loving buttons. It'd be nice to have something fun to fill that niche since I don't watch The O.C. anymore.

I'm happy to see that the perpetually endangered Veronica Mars has indeed found a place on the CW, and with Gilmore Girls as a lead-in. Even though this past season was sometimes bumpy, it's still the most exhilarating show on TV, and it'd be a shame to see it go so soon. I will be in mourning, though, for Invasion, a great show that built slowly (hence its trouble finding an audience) but brilliantly to its devastating climax this week. Given that ABC stuck with it for an entire season, even returning it to its coveted post-Lost timselot after a midseason break, I was sort of hoping they'd give it a chance for another season, but no luck. And rumors that the CW would pick it up turned out to be groundless. I haven't been this bummed by a premature cancellation since Freaks & Geeks.

Instead, ABC picked up yet another J.J. Abrams show, What About Brian, which I like but not nearly as much as Invasion. It hasn't yet been able to live up to the promise of the original pilot I saw last summer, although it got closer as its very brief season went on, and I'm glad it's getting a chance to continue to find its footing. It's among the few returning shows - along with VM, My Name is Earl and Lost - that I'm looking forward to watching next season. It's a good thing I'll have so many open slots for all those new shows.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Weekend viewing

The Ballad of Jack and Rose (Rebecca Miller, 2005)
I wasn't crazy about Miller's last film, Personal Velocity, but N.P. Thompson's rapturous review convinced me to check this one out, and it's...well, about as good as Personal Velocity. Miller's got a good eye for striking natural landscapes, and she creates some potentially interesting characters, but they just sort of sit there, inert, looking thoughtful amid the pretty scenery. There's also a little too much precious symbolism in this movie for my taste, but the performances are generally strong, even if they are sort of creating something out of nothing.

Delicatessen (Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, 1991)
Jeunet fascinates me even though I often leave his films sort of baffled. This is his first feature, a dark but strangely sweet post-apocalyptic sci-fi weird-o-rama, which I nevertheless found more comprehensible than City of Lost Children. The best thing is to kind of surrender to his films' internal logic, and eventually the pieces fall into place. Like Terry Gilliam, Jeunet never bothers to explain the surrealist worlds he creates, but lets them engulf the viewer until they feel just as natural as any realistic indie drama. Or close enough, at least, to have a genuine interest in whether the sad ex-clown gets killed and eaten by the butcher or saved by his cello-playing daughter. You know, just your average everyday stuff.

New comics 5/10

American Virgin #3 (Steven T. Seagle/Becky Cloonan, DC/Vertigo)
I feel like I'm repeating myself on this book, as with The Exterminators, but I've got the same reaction once again: I definitely think there's something interesting going on here, but Seagle has yet to really establish a central premise, and the lead character still seems sort of ill-defined. At the same time, it's that uncertainty about where things are headed that keeps me wanting to read, at least for now. This issue does make headway in developing Adam as a person, showing him struggle with his faith as he deals with the death of his girlfriend, and I like that the foul-mouthed, degenerate stepsister comes off as the voice of reason here. I do wonder how this can possibly last as an ongoing, but I'll at least stick around to see how this first arc plays out.

Cable & Deadpool #28 (Fabian Nicieza/Reilly Brown, Marvel)
It's kind of disappointing that Lan Medina already needs a fill-in penciller, given how long Patrick Zircher went without any guest artists. Brown's work is fine, if a little too cartoony at times. Apparently, we're getting a different guest artist next month (reliable workhorse Ron Lim), which is also sort of annoying. As for the actual story, it's a good start to the new arc after the relatively pointless Apocalypse storyline. Nicieza does a good job with Domino, who narrates the issue, and even if the reveal at the end is completely predictable, it's an interesting set-up for Cable's latest attempt to be the savior of a group of oppressed people.

Ex Machina #20 (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
This was a powerful conclusion to this book's most brutal arc yet, and it's a shame that the scheduling worked out so that the first issue of the Ex Machina Special came out before this did, because it sort of distracts from this particular storyline. Vaughan makes some interesting comments on terrorism while also turning the story into something more personal for Mitchell and unique to this book. And he kills off a very likeable supporting character, which is pretty bold, although not unexpected given his other work. I'm a little worried that this came out after the first issue of the special, which was supposed to fill in the gap as Harris got back on schedule. Hopefully the next regular issue isn't too far away.

Fables #49 (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham, DC/Vertigo)
Willingham is finally getting back to Bigby and Snow, and while all of the stories he's told in their absence have been good, I'm happy to see them back as the focus of the book. This two-part arc has been mostly set-up, but what it's setting up looks to be promising, and I'm glad to catch a glimpse of Geppetto in this issue, showing that he hasn't been forgotten after the epic Battle for Fabletown and Homelands arcs.

She-Hulk #7 (Dan Slott/Will Conrad, Marvel)
Slott offers up an interesting and rather dark twist on Starfox, a character I never knew all that much about. He basically presents Starfox as a sexual predator who uses the superhero equivalent of date-rape drugs. Not exactly the light-hearted stuff this book usually presents, although it's presented in a fairly humorous way, and draws on continuity in the manner Slott is known for. Even though this might be seen as a retcon of sorts, it's really doing exactly what Slott always does, which is respect continuity while looking at it from a different, more realistic angle. It looks like this arc is going to have some lasting consequences, but I have a feeling they'll get pushed aside for a few issues as Civil War takes over.

Also out this week: Batman: Secrets #3, in which Sam Kieth continues to do his Sam Kieth thing, and mold Batman to whatever story he's interested in telling, and I like it.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Movies opening this week

Art School Confidential (Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, John Malkovich, dir. Terry Zwigoff)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
The reviews for this have been mostly negative, so my expectations were lowered, but I loved Ghost World so much that I was still disappointed that Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes didn't come up with something better for the follow-up. It's sort of ironic that their last movie did a great job of showing the complexity behind certain stereotypical characters, while this film just embraces stereotypes for cheap laughs. Not that I didn't laugh a couple of times, but it was rather reluctantly. Opened limited May 5; wide release this week

Poseidon (Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Emmy Rossum, Richard Dreyfuss, dir. Wolfgang Petersen)
Petersen is one of the better directors of these bloated action spectacles, and has experience with disaster at sea movies (Das Boot, The Perfect Storm), but this one feels like he’s just going through the motions (it was rushed through production to be ready for summer release, so that might be one reason). He doesn’t waste time – the giant wave hits the cruise ship within 20 minutes of the movie starting – but that means we have little sense of who the characters are or why we should care whether they survive. Some of the set pieces are perfectly decent, but there isn’t much suspense since the plot is almost 100 percent predictable. And they still can’t make realistic looking waves with CGI. Overall, I’m sure the original is better (and I can say that with certainty even without having seen it). Wide release

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Weekend viewing

Walking and Talking (Nicole Holofcener, 1996)
I didn't even realize this was coming up in my Netflix queue when I went to see Friends With Money last week, but it was a nice surprise since I liked Friends With Money and I always like these talky indie dramedies about relationships. This is Holofcener's first film, and I thought it was better than Friends With Money overall, albeit a little rough around the edges at times. It was nice to see Catherine Keener playing someone who wasn't so dour, and Anne Heche without the baggage of all her tabloid adventures. Holofcener is really good at portraying genuine, unforced female friendship, and her characters are natural and appealing. She's only got one other film I haven't seen - Lovely & Amazing - and I added it to my queue right after watching this one.

Mountain Patrol: Kekexili (Lu Chuan, 2004)
This movie was supposed to open in Vegas this Friday, so I watched it over the weekend and wrote a review. All of a sudden it's now not opening here at all (this sadly happens more than you might imagine), but I spent the time writing the review so it's going to get published, even if it's only on here. This is what you would have read in Las Vegas Weekly this week:

In the remote mountains of Tibet, poachers hunt the Tibetan antelope for its pelts, which command a high price in foreign markets. Outlawed by the Chinese government, the practice remains widespread in 1996 as only a band of civilians, the mountain patrol of the title, stand between the antelope and their predators. When the poachers kill one of the volunteer patrolmen, reporter Gayu (Zhang Lei) is sent from Beijing to cover the story.

Stepping off the bus from the big city, Gayu is like someone transported from another world. His baseball cap and modern camera clash with the primitive environment of the mountain village, but he throws himself into his reporting, tagging along with the single-minded patrol leader Ritai (Duobuji) and his crew as they venture into the harsh mountains to track the elusive poachers.

The trip, which starts out as exciting and upbeat, quickly takes a dark turn, and Ritai becomes Captain Ahab-like in his obsession with catching the poachers’ ringleader. Writer-director Lu Chuan, loosely basing the story on a real patrol that protected the antelopes until 2001, delves deeply into the violence that people inflict upon each other in the name of ideals that quickly become moot. The patrol’s efforts are nearly futile, not only because they can’t catch the poachers, but also because they have no authority to arrest them; they can only confiscate the pelts, some of which they shamefully end up selling to make up for funding that the government doesn’t provide.

As the patrol makes its way deeper and deeper into the unforgiving landscape, the cause they are fighting for drifts further and further from the everyday realities of simply surviving against the elements. Lu shoots some incredibly beautiful landscapes that give you a sense of the enormity of the terrain, and how alien it must be to someone like Gayu, used to modern city living. Ultimately, though, what makes the film strong is not its unique portrait of life in rural Tibet, but the way it effectively conveys universal truths about people’s capacity for cruelty.

Monday, May 08, 2006

New comics 5/3

The Exterminators #5 (Simon Oliver/Tony Moore, DC/Vertigo)
Once again, I neither loved nor hated this issue, which theoretically ends the first arc, although it doesn't really wrap anything up. I'm not sure whether to keep reading, since I find the book vaguely dissatisfying yet oddly intriguing. I can't really point to anything specific that I like about it, but at the same time, I do sort of look forward to each new issue. I suppose I'll wait until the next one is on the stands and decide at that moment whether to give up on this series or press on.

The Middle Man Vol. 2 #2-3 (Javier Grillo-Marxuach/Les McClaine, Viper)
Issue two came out last month, but my shop got both of them this week, which is nice, because they're each pretty brief reads. I think that Grillo-Marxuach is doing a better job of telling a cohesive story in this mini-series than he did in the first one, and all of his goofy elements are working together well. McClaine is great at both action and expressive faces, and this continues to be a very fun read.

Y the Last Man #45 (Brian K. Vaughn/Pia Guerra, DC/Vertigo)
It's revelations galore this issue, as we learn that Yorick's mom is dead, and that Dr. Mann's mother sent her to protect Yorick. We also see some interesting cracks in 355's facade, and Vaughn once again does a great job of creating the sense that these characters are genuinely in danger. This has been an excellent arc after the somewhat sluggish series of stand-alone stories, and is really moving things forward in a big way toward the eventual finale.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Movies opening this week

Hoot (Logan Lerman, Luke Wilson, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson, dir. Wil Shriner)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
My mother, father and sister all love Jimmy Buffett, so they've all been pretty excited about this movie, which Buffett produced and wrote new music for and has a small role in (he's a terrible actor). I guess hardcore Jimmy Buffet fans and easily amused kids might like it, but this isn't a very good movie. I've read two of Carl Hiaasen's other novels, and this does nothing to capture his manic prose and breakneck pacing. Yes, it's based on a book for kids, but I don't believe that anything Hiaasen wrote could possibly be this dull. Wide release

L'Enfant (The Child) (Jeremie Renier, Deborah Francois, dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
I've been reading about this movie for about a year now, since its Palme D'Or win at Cannes in 2005, and nearly everything I've read has been about how great it is, so my expectations were very high. I've never seen any of the Dardenne brothers' other movies, so all I had to go on was the praise from other critics, and it's one of those cases where I saw a lot of what people really admire about the film, and yet I remained sort of detached from it. It's very raw and immediate, and subtle in really strong ways, and the acting is very good. I just wasn't able to fully invest myself in the story for one reason or another; I might simply have been distracted while I was watching it. So I'm not ready to proclaim this the best movie of the year, but I did find it interesting and I will check out some of the Dardennes' other films. Opened limited Mar. 24; in Las Vegas this week

Mission: Impossible III (Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Monaghan, Ving Rhames, dir. J.J. Abrams)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I love J.J. Abrams, I really do, and he does a perfectly decent job with this movie, probably as good as you could expect for a massive franchise with a huge star and a gigantic budget. There's not a whole lot of room for creativity and experimentation with a movie like this, and Abrams does what he can. It's a fun popcorn movie, for the most part, and I think it will make plenty of money. I hope it will afford Abrams the chance to make more movies.

But here's the thing, and I've said this before: Given the amount of time and effort that goes into making a movie, I really wish that talented people like Abrams wouldn't spend it on extending franchises based on old TV shows. The stuff that Abrams has done on TV (Alias, Lost, Felicity) is notable for its creativity and originality, and honestly I think his talent is wasted on something like this. I understand the politics of Hollywood, and that these are the kinds of movies that get made, and that it's much harder to get a green light for an original idea, and that if this movie is successful it puts Abrams in a position with more clout to do something original. That's all true, and it probably isn't going to change. But it's also true that Abrams still had to spend all this time and effort making a franchise movie just to get the possibility of making something original, and if I want to check out what J.J. Abrams is doing these days, I've got to see Mission: Impossible III. He's not writing or directing the finale of Alias, because he's busy with this movie. So I will say, yes, that I resent Hollywood for its business model that punishes innovation and rewards ideas based on other, already proven, ideas. But I also sort of resent J.J. Abrams for not working harder to do something original and unique. I know that he probably really wanted to make this movie, but it's a larger point that I think applies to a lot of really talented people in Hollywood. They do remakes, and sequels to other people's movies, and that's just the way it goes. Very few people make the effort necessary to do something really original, and it frustrates me, especially when they made their names on the very originality that they then give up when embraced by the big time Hollywood machine. Wide release

Thursday, May 04, 2006

R.I.P. Louis Rukeyser

Louis Rukeyser, host of PBS's Wall Street Week from 1972-2002, died on Tuesday at age 73. Now, I wasn't what you would call a big fan of Wall Street Week, but Rukeyser was an integral part of my childhood in a weird way, and reading about his death both made me sad and brought back some nice memories. When I was a kid, my grandfather, Monte Gordon, who was an analyst for Dreyfus, would appear from time to time on Wall Street Week, talking about some financial subject or other (I didn't understand it at age 8, and I probably wouldn't understand it now). Of course, every time he was on, my mom would tape the show and we would all gather around the TV and watch it. I don't remember a single thing my grandfather ever said on the show, but I do remember Lou Rukeyser, to whom I took an immediate liking. All of the obits describe him as witty and warm, and I suppose that's what I responded to as a child. He just seemed friendly, and nice, not too imposing like most old men are when you're a kid. I remember thinking, with a kid's logic, that he looked like George Washington. Which means I must have thought he was pretty old back then, so it sort of surprised me that he was only 73 when he died.

After my grandfather stopped appearing on the show, I never watched Wall Street Week again, but I always remembered Lou Rukeyser. It was nice knowing that he was around, dispensing financial wisdom with some humor and friendliness, sitting around with guys in ties like my grandfather, talking about stocks I'd never heard of. Watching that show as a kid was a bit like getting a glimpse into some secret adult club, and it's something I'll always remember fondly.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Furthering my fame

I'm still doing weekly appearances enlightening the citizenry of 11 Canadian cities on Adler Online, talking about the latest film releases on Fridays, usually about 12:15 PT/3:15 ET, although the times vary. If you can sit through discussions of Canadian politics, you can listen here.

Starting this week I'll also be appearing on a local morning show, chatting with Gonzo (clearly a serious cineaste) and Nicole on Area 108 at 8:45 PT/11:45 ET. Those times should stay constant, so if you're awake on a Friday morning with nothing to do, check me out, likely between interviews with porn stars and the latest awesome hits from HIM and Panic! At the Disco.

Still no word from Roger Ebert on replacing that Roeper guy.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Weekend viewing

Friends With Money (Nicole Holofcener, 2006)
The reviews on this one have been wildly mixed, but I liked it, for the most part. I haven't seen any of Holofcener's other films, so I don't know how it stacked up, but I thought it worked as a low-key character drama, with some very good acting. Jennifer Aniston's tabloid antics can give her a bad reputation, but she is really good at the kind of character she plays in this film, the insecure but good-hearted woman who just wants to find love. It's pretty much an indie version of Rachel Green, and she really nails it in this film, just as she did in The Good Girl. Some of the other characters come off as a little underdeveloped, but Holofcener's got such good actors (Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack) that they mostly pick up the slack. The story loses steam toward the end, but overall it paints a very nice portrait.

Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996)
Mission: Impossible II (John Woo, 2000)
Obviously, preparation for the new sequel, which is out this week. These are not exactly the movies I'd put at the top of my list for re-watching, but they're decent enough as far as popcorn action movies go. I like Woo's film a little better; both have ridiculously inane plots, but Woo's is executed with more style, and the script at least offers a love interest and a clear villain, both of which are missing in the first film. Not that the villain in M:I II is even that compelling, but at least he's a clear antagonist for Ethan Hunt to fight against. Jon Voight doesn't even get to be villainous in the first film until it's almost over. De Palma's sequence with Tom Cruise hanging above the computer is justly famous, although this time around it just made me think of John August's rant about air vents. There aren't any similarly iconic scenes in the second film, but Thandie Newton is amazingly sexy and the action has a lot more zest to it. I have relatively high hopes for the third installment, not only because I think J.J. Abrams is a genius, but also because it looks like he's going to beef up the character development and offer a great villain in Philip Seymour Hoffman, both of which are elements that made the second film an improvement over the first.

The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)
This has got to be one of the most violent movies I have ever seen. I was literally amazed at the opening gun battle, with its emphasis on brutal collateral damage and senseless killing. It's miles away from what you'd expect from a traditional, classical Western. I like that even through Peckinpah's bleak outlook, you come to like and respect the characters, on both sides of the conflict, which is something that's even more rare in this type of film. He really focuses not just on violence but also its effects, whether it's bystanders caught in the crossfire of gunfights or kids who are learning how to become the next generation of violent brutes. I guess it's a little long, and there are a couple of parts that drag, but overall this is a startling and very good film.