Sunday, July 30, 2006

New comics 7/26

Astro City: Samaritan (Kurt Busiek/Brent Anderson, DC/Wildstorm)
This isn't really about Samaritan, Busiek's square-jawed Superman analogue, but more about his archrival Infidel, and an interestingly unconventional solution to the endless battle between the two. Taking a break from the bleak Dark Age storyline currently running through a series of mini-series, Busiek goes back to his more optimistic, wonder-infused style that has typified this series, while also finding yet another inventive but strangely practical angle on superheroics. A nice palate cleanser in between chapters of The Dark Age, and a reminder of what this franchise's strengths really are.

Civil War: Young Avengers & Runaways #1 (Zeb Wells/Stefano Caselli, Marvel)
Although I'm not reading the main Civil War series or any other spin-offs, I certainly couldn't pass up a series with two of my favorite Marvel teams, while one of their series is on hiatus, written by a guy who did such nice work on the recent New Warriors mini. If Runaways creator Brian K. Vaughan and Young Avengers creator Allan Heinberg weren't available to write this, then Wells is an ideal next choice, although this issue is rather disappointingly conventional. It's got the whole "heroes meet, have a misunderstanding, and then fight" device, which could not be more tired, and Wells' dialogue isn't quite as sharp as what Vaughan and Heinberg write in the main books. But the set-up at the end with Vision and Victor, thanks to their shared relation to Ultron, is interesting, and overall I'm interested enough in the characters and have enough faith in Wells that I'll check out at least one more issue.

Jack of Fables #1 (Bill Willingham & Matthew Sturges/Tony Akins, DC/Vertigo)
This Fables spin-off book has been in the works for a long time, and while it's a perfectly decent little issue, this doesn't exactly break enough new ground to convince me that a separate title was essential. Instead of a solo adventure book with Jack on the road, which is what I thought we'd be getting, this is looking like another ensemble book about a different group of fables, with Jack captured and imprisoned in a village much like the one from The Prisoner. If that's the whole set-up, it's a little disappointing, but maybe as an opening arc it could work. The writing remains sharp and fun, and there are some new characters with potential. If this were simply a storyline in the main book, I'd have no complaints, but I'm not yet convinced it can support a whole series of its own.

Powers #19 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Avon Oeming, Marvel/Icon)
Finally, a new storyline! After dragging out the last one way too long, Bendis and Oeming give us three pages of Walker having sex, naked breasts, lesbian fantasies, a hot chick superhero masturbating, and the requisite dead body, covered in blood. It's good to have the book back on track, and of course also the subplots about Pilgrim's and Walker's respective acquisitions of powers continue, and I imagine they will get resolved during this arc. I hope so, because especially with how long the last one went on, it seems like the murder mysteries have taken a back seat, and this looks like a good one so I'd like to see it given the attention it deserves.

Savage Dragon #0 (Erik Larsen, Image)
She-Dragon (Erik Larsen/Franchecso!, Image)
Two Savage Dragon-related specials from Larsen in one week illustrate the massive, unwieldy continuity he's built in the main book. The zero issue reprints Dragon's origin from the Image anniversary hardcover, which I never bought so it was nice to have. It's a surprising angle, having Dragon as an evil megalomaniac who loses his memories, but ultimately since Larsen has no plans to follow up on it and had always planned to keep it a secret, it's a strangely inconsequential story for something that would seem so important. The She-Dragon special relies on so much convoluted continuity from various issues of the regular book that Larsen spends two pages explaining it all in the back of the issue - and that's even with a long flashback to recap She-Dragon's origin. Some of it's fun, but a lot more is just confusing, with multiple versions of various characters running around. Franchesco!'s cheesecake art is great when he's just doing poses, reminding me a little of the Dodsons, but his action and storytelling leave a little to be desired. Not exactly worth the hefty ($5.99) price tag, either.

Spike vs. Dracula #4 (Peter David/Joe Corroney & Mike Ratera, IDW)
I guess Corroney's rushed-looking art on the last issue wasn't a fluke, because he only had time to pencil four pages of this issue. Which is too bad, because Ratera's art is amateurish and sloppy, and doesn't capture the way the characters are supposed to look at all. I hope Corroney will be back to finish up the series next issue. The story isn't the series' best either, with the title characters never even coming face to face. Although I've enjoyed this series for the most part, I think the rather thin premise is getting pretty old, and it'll be nice to see it wrapped up soon.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Hating everything

After a few months of reviewing movies on the Gonzo morning show on local radio station Area 108, I've gotten a reputation for being the curmudgeonly critic who hates everything. Apparently, a few weeks ago after I talked about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, a listener called in and scoffed that they might as well just name whatever movie was opening in a given week and say, "Josh hated it" without even having me on. I've got a good relationship with Gonzo and his co-host Nicole, and they've done a lot to promote me, so I didn't mind at all when the next week I discovered that they had created a theme song for my appearances called, appropriately enough, "Josh Bell Hates Everything." Actually, I was highly amused and flattered (listen for yourself here). I ended up with the same reputation (sans theme song) when I used to appear on Adler OnLine in Canada. Even though they don't have me on anymore, the main reason they had me back from week to week was that they liked my pessimistic viewpoint.

But it's interesting to me that this is sort of the default opinion that people have of critics (I remember a while back, the restaurant critic for Las Vegas Weekly told me that I was well-suited to being a movie critic because I "like almost nothing"), and that there's such a negative connotation to "hating everything," or rather to having exacting standards. I've probably given more negative than positive reviews in my time on Area 108, but I've also praised certain movies multiple times. Of course, it's not the good reviews or even good movies that people remember as much. I'm guilty of it, too, in that whenever someone asks me to recommend a movie for them to go see, I seem to always be able to think of the movies I hated more readily than the movies I liked. And hating movies is fun, because it leads to writing creatively nasty reviews, while writing glowing reviews is often more challenging and less liberating.

Meanwhile, my friend Tony Macklin, who writes reviews for the Fayetteville Free Weekly in Arkansas, has a local Gawker-esque blog obsessed with his work, writing a weekly deconstruction of his reviews titled, of course, "Tony Macklin Hates Everything." Like me with my theme song and feedback from radio listeners, Tony is greatly pleased with the recognition, and of course any response, good or bad, means that people are taking notice of your reviews and caring about what you say, which is wonderful. I just got another piece of hate mail last week on my year-and-a-half-old Million Dollar Baby review, and it's nice to know that what I wrote is still grabbing people's attention. (I should realize, however, not to trifle with Joss Whedon fans.)

Friday, July 28, 2006

Movies opening this week

Miami Vice (Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Gong Li, Naomie Harris, dir. Michael Mann)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
After immersing myself in Michael Mann movies for a week in preparation for writing this essay, I was a little disappointed with Miami Vice, which didn't quite live up to what I perceive as the brilliance of Mann's earlier work. My friend who went to the screening with me was so bored and annoyed with the movie that he walked out and wandered the lobby several times during the film. I also had a tough time getting into the rhythm of watching the film, which is very slow in its first hour and often deliberately obtuse. But I was also really tired and worn-out from a day of work and car troubles by the time I made it to the screening, and probably wasn't able to give the movie my full powers of concentration (such are the perils of movie reviewing on deadline). Leaving the theater, I was disappointed, but reflecting afterward I found more and more to think about, as I often do with Mann's films, and I'd like to see it again in a more receptive frame of mind. So I don't think this is necessarily the most insightful review I've ever written, and given the glowing notices from very respectable people like Philadelphia Weekly's Sean Burns and New York Magazine's David Edelstein, I think there's more to the film than I was able to express. Wide release

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

San Diego wrap-up

This was my fourth year at the San Diego Comic-Con, not counting the time I went when I was 12, and I think I'm getting a little burned out on the whole experience. I spent much less money and left much more exhausted than in past years, but without feeling it was a really worthwhile experience. On the plus side, I reunited with my old childhood pal Nathan Hamill, whom I had not seen in probably 14 years (he now works as a colorist for Bongo Comics), and got two more issues closer to completing my New Warriors run (only seven left!). I did also enjoy the Kevin Smith panel, although I spent 45 minutes waiting in line in the hot sun to get in, and another 45 minutes or so in the auditorium waiting for him to show (they eventually rescheduled for later in the day). His reputation as a great raconteur is well-deserved, and the panel was at least as funny as Clerks II. The nighttime presentation of The Animation Show, a collection of animated short films curated by Mike Judge, was one of those cool things you love to see at the Con, and was probably the most fun I had the whole time (as usual, I was only there for Saturday).

But since so many of the things that people go to the convention for, like meeting their favorite creators and getting autographs or sketches, or hearing announcements about new projects from major comics companies, or seeing preview footage from upcoming Hollywood films, don't really appeal to me, I sometimes feel like it's not worth the hassle of getting all the way out there. Last year I tried to check out some indie comics to give new things a chance, but doing the same thing this year I was just struck by how overwhelming it is to wander around all these booths and try to see if something looks interesting. If you spend more than 15 seconds looking at someone's stuff, they'll start giving you the hard sell, which is understandable but still makes me uncomfortable. If it was like a film festival, where I could sample lots of new stuff for a flat admission fee, then I might be more open. But deciding what to spend money on just ends up kind of a waste of time. The only thing I bought was a short preview book for Salem: Queen of Thorns, a horror title that the creators are hoping to set up at Image. It's got a neat premise - during the Salem witch trials, the people being persecuted are not really witches, but witches are real and are menacing the area - and decent writing and art for an indie book. I could see Image picking it up, although it didn't quite grab me enough to make me want to buy another issue.

I got cajoled into taking a copy of the third issue of Heroes Inc, a silly superhero parody published by Bare Bones Studios, who are based in Vegas. This is probably as much coverage as I'll be giving their book, though - it's not as bad as it looked, but it's mildly amusing at best and the jokes are horribly repetitive. And, really, the comics world is so full of superhero parodies that that's the last thing you should do if you want your indie comic to get any notice.

Far better were two promo comics from bigger companies: Dark Horse gave out a Conan the Barbarian freebie with two stories, one by Joshua Dysart and Tone Rodriguez, the other by Tim Truman and Cary Nord. The art is impressive and the writing is decent, but it just confirms for me that the whole sword-and-sorcery adventure genre that Conan typifies is very much not my kind of thing. Random House gave out the first issue of Elk's Run, which they will be publishing as a graphic novel after its rather tortured and torturous publishing history in single issues. This is a great idea - the issue serves as a sort of extended trailer but doesn't feel insubstantial like many preview books. It helps that the story, an atmospheric horror piece, is very good, and it definitely hooked me into wanting to check out the whole thing whenever it's released.

The one thing I wish I could do at the Con but can't is buy original art. Last year I bought some T-shirts with work by artists whose work I liked, but this year I didn't see anything new in that realm that really caught my eye (the people whose stuff I bought last year had the same ones for sale this year). But I did practically drool over some original paintings and prints by Ragnar, a onetime Vegas resident whose T-shirt I bought last year. If I had the money I would have bought one of his pieces to take home and put on my wall, and I would have loved to get an original page by a comics artist I like as well. But those are so expensive that I would have spent my entire budget for the trip on just one or two. And the pieces that are affordable are generally really small or not worth buying.

I don't mean to be so down on the Con, which has gotten bigger and bigger and more influential and has done as much for the mainstreaming of comic book culture as any specific publisher has. But for me, the whole experience is not as rewarding as it is for some. I don't really participate in the social aspect - I've never met anyone at the Con and I rarely even talk to anybody unless it involves a transaction - and much of the stuff I buy I could just as easily order on Amazon. So I may take next year off, or I may go the complete opposite route and go for two days to have more time to really look for stuff that interests me. It'll all depend on my mood and perhaps how much I've forgotten about the annoyances this year. Of course, I might have had a better time if I'd just followed this advice instead.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

New comics 7/19

I was in San Diego over the weekend for the Comic-Con, and I should have a report on that in the next day or two. In the meantime, this week's non-Con-related comics (strangely, all Marvel books for me this week).

Cable & Deadpool #30 (Fabian Nicieza/Staz Johnson, Marvel)
Like he did with House of M, Nicieza uses the opportunity of the Civil War crossover to sort of make fun of the whole thing, or at least he has Deadpool spend the whole issue not taking any of it seriously, which works perfectly in context in addition to deflating some of the crossover's grandiose nature. At the same time, Cable does take it seriously, and even though his panel time in this issue is minimal, Nicieza gives a good sense of where he stands on the issue that's consistent with his recent characterization. In a way this crossover is perfect for Nicieza, because it ties closely in to all the stuff he's been doing recently with Cable, with his efforts to do away with governments and establish a new utopia. This is also the funniest issue in a while, with Deadpool breaking the fourth wall in classic fashion and a perfect blend of the plot and the humor. Although I'm annoyed at seeing the fourth different artist in the last four issues, Johnson's work is mostly solid and at least it appears he'll be returning next month.

Runaways #18 (Brian K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona, Marvel)
The big issue, as one of the team members dies and things, as always in this book, undergo drastic changes. The one thing that Vaughan has never shied away from is shaking things up, and even as Gert meets her heroic and sad end (which Vaughan handles very well), new characters show up to potentially join the team and Chase takes off with Old Lace to go his own way. It never seems like the death is the closing of a door, as so many new avenues open up as a result that it's hard to fret about lost potential. But Gert was a great character, and it was sad to see her go, and given the title of the next arc ("Dead Means Dead"), I imagine that Vaughan will be dealing with the repercussions for a while.

She-Hulk #9 (Dan Slott/Paul Smith & Ron Frenz, Marvel)
Slott's really pushing this Starfox mind control thing as far as it can go, although I do find it interesting for him to take what others have probably treated as a throwaway bit and tease it out to its logical conclusion. He also writes some very funny stuff with J. Jonah Jameson, but I'm definitely looking forward to this being resolved next issue; it's hard to care about what the protagonist does when she's under mind control for numerous consecutive issues. I'll miss Smith on art, though; his simple, classic style was great for the book, but he clearly doesn't have time for it, since Ron Frenz drew half this issue and it was only Smith's second.

X-Factor #9 (Peter David/Dennis Calero, Marvel)
David continues to explore repercussions from House of M, and he's now broadening his scope a bit. Civil War seems to have given him some good fodder for storylines, and once again this book does a good job of integrating the crossover with the ongoing storylines. And the team's face-off against the X-Men also serves well to differentiate the two groups. It's building slowly, but this series is definitely getting better and figuring out its own identity and, strangely enough, it's been big crossovers that have helped it to do that.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Movies opening this week

Clerks II (Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Rosario Dawson, dir. Kevin Smith)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
The theme this week is movies by directors I once loved and continue to hope will be great once again. I saw the original Clerks at age 15 and it was a formative experience for me, and it remains one of my favorite movies. I also loved Smith's Chasing Amy, and for a while it seemed like he was going to develop into a really fascinating director of sensitive, funny films about relationships, a sort of vulgar Woody Allen of New Jersey. But I think at this point he's sort of lost his way, and even though this film is much better than the maudlin Jersey Girl, it still feels like Smith can't quite embrace all the potential richness of his pet subjects, or at least make his humor fit better with his tendencies toward sentimentality. There is a good movie in here somewhere, and I think Smith fans will find much of it funny and at least be relieved that he's bounced back somewhat from Jersey Girl. Part of Smith's charm has always been his connection with his fans, but I have to wonder if he's spending a little too much time excoriating his critics and worrying what other people think, and not enough time figuring out how to tell his next great story. Wide release

Lady in the Water (Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, M. Night Shyamalan, Jeffrey Wright, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
And then there's M. Night Shyamalan, whose massive hit The Sixth Sense took me a little while to really warm up to, but whose 2000 film Unbreakable is another of my all-time favorites. Like Smith, Shyamalan is one of those filmmakers who makes movies that geeky film fans would make if they could, so it's especially disappointing to see him jump so soundly off the deep end. Unlike Smith, who seems a little lost but still knows how to play to his strengths, Shyamalan is so far up his own ass that I wonder if he'll ever find his way out again. I realize it's a little ironic that the same week I wrote an essay praising Smith and Shyamalan's originality, I trashed their movies, but no matter how much I may dislike the films (and I count Lady in the Water as one of the worst movies of the year so far), I still respect their commitment to originality and getting their own stories on the screen. Ross Douthat makes many of the same points in this essay on Slate. And even though I'm highly skeptical, I'll still look forward to Shyamalan's next film, because I think the guy has a lot of talent and maybe, like Smith, he needs a real flop to go back and re-assess what it is he really does best. Wide release

Monday, July 17, 2006

Spider-Man/Black Cat

On the eve of the release of Clerks II, I finally got around to reading Kevin Smith's Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil That Men Do in its entirety. Marvel infamously released the first three issues of the six-issue mini-series in 2002, and the next three didn't surface until earlier this year. Lord knows enough has been spewed online about the lateness (entirely Smith's fault) and whether it signifies a disrespect for the fans, whether it's worth buying the later issues after so long, whether Smith is bad for comics, etc. On that front: I don't care. I like the guy's movies, I thought the premise of the series looked interesting, I like the art team (Terry and Rachel Dodson). So I bought it, and I was annoyed at the lateness, but when it was all finally out, I read all six issues in a row and got the whole story. To me, the scheduling is a side issue. The real problem is that it's just not very good.

I don't know if Smith's story changed fundamentally in the years-long interim between issues three and four (it does incorporate some recent Marvel universe developments, but nothing so major as to necessitate rewriting, I would imagine), but there's a clear tonal shift around the end of the third issue that, in my mind, simply does not work. The first three issues are, for the most part, breezy and fun and full of clever banter, which is one of Smith's strengths and actually comes off as more natural on the page than it does when spoken verbatim by actors. The Dodsons are best at sexy and playful, and Smith gives them plenty to work with. Sure, Spider-Man and Black Cat team up because there's some nasty guy out there selling drugs and a couple of people have turned up dead, but the story itself is more of a caper than anything, and I found it a very entertaining read even if it felt fairly inconsequential.

But then things take a turn for the very dark, and maybe Smith felt that after such a long wait he needed to give people a story with more weight and consequence. He grafts a very heavy-handed date-rape story on to the Black Cat's origin, which apparently pissed a lot of people off - read this livid and mildly incoherent review from Silver Bullet Comics - although I didn't know about it since I avoided reviews when the issues came out because I hadn't read them yet. And while I'm not nearly as annoyed as that guy, perhaps because I've never been a big Black Cat fan, I thought the second half of the story was misguided, labored and poorly written, and, worst of all, completely blew the promise of the first half. It's not just all the platitudes about surviving sexual abuse and the near-total lack of humor that sink the story's second half, though - Smith also shifts gears and abandons some key plot elements of the early issues, and brings in guest stars Nightcrawler and Daredevil who add nothing to the story and are merely distracting. Plus he keeps Spider-Man and Black Cat apart the whole time, losing the opportunity to write the loose, fun dialogue he employed so well at the start.

And the poor Dodsons, who are geniuses at sexy fun and light action, don't get to play to their strengths at all and are completely wasted. I'm happy to overlook Smith's scheduling issues for the sake of a good story, and I think online fans get way too riled up about what they perceive as personal slights from a man they've never met. But this is just a bad story and, strangely enough, proves what Smith has been saying for years, that maybe superhero action isn't his forte and he should stick to talky indie movies about relationships. Although, when this book was a talky superhero book about the lead characters' relationship, it was great. Maybe there's a happy medium in there somewhere, but this certainly wasn't it.

New comics 7/12

American Virgin #5 (Steven T. Seagle/Becky Cloonan, DC/Vertigo)
I wasn't sure where Seagle was going with this book after Adam's sojourn in Africa, but even though this is technically the start of a new storyline, it looks like he's really just continuing on the same path, as Adam sets out for revenge against Cassie's killer. I'm not sure how long this book can milk this one event, but as it continues to spiral into new directions, it remains a rich source of material for the characters.

The Exterminators #7 (Simon Oliver/Tony Moore, DC/Vertigo)
It's interesting that this is the issue with the least amount of bug-related adventures and the one I've probably enjoyed the most so far. I really like the developing relationship between Henry and Page, and Laura has become a more interesting character now that she and Henry are breaking up. The fellow exterminators also feel more fleshed out now, and I'm not sure where Oliver is going with the resurrected Ace (or whatever - I can't actually remember the character's name), but I kind of prefer the grounded drama to any sci-fi mumbo jumbo brewing in the background. Moore's art in this issue is a little uneven thanks to multiple inkers, so I hope he can get back on track soon enough.

Fables #51 (Bill Willingham/Shawn McManus, DC/Vertigo)
I was glad to see Willingham returning both to the alliance with the cloud kingdoms (from last issue's oversized Bigby Wolf tale) and Cinderella, whom we haven't seen in the spotlight in quite some time. This story felt a lot less rushed than the last issue did, and I like the way that Willingham is fleshing out the cloud kingdoms, making them into their own unique world that I'm intrigued to visit again. And with the cryptic ending I imagine we'll be seeing more Cinderella, too, which is great since this book needs more strong females after Willingham tied the bow on Snow and Bigby. McManus' art is nice if sometimes rough, but a perfectly acceptable fill-in, as I'm sure Mark Buckingham needs a rest after drawing the huge 50th issue.

Snakewoman #1 (Zeb Wells/Michael Gaydos, Virgin)
This is the second new series from Virgin, and while the previews for their other books have looked sort of hokey to me, I checked this out because I've liked some of the past work by both of these creators. And this issue is okay. It's basically a slow-burn horror book, so not a lot happens yet, but Wells creates a suitably creepy and mysterious atmosphere, and Gaydos is good at blending gritty realism with the supernatural. I'll give it another issue to see where things go, but for a big launch from a major company like this, it probably should have made a stronger immediate impression.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Movies opening this week

A Scanner Darkly (Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, dir. Richard Linklater)
I've been looking forward to this movie since it was first announced years ago, but the reviews have been very mixed, so I was prepared to be disappointed. Luckily I wasn't - this is one of my favorite movies of the year so far, an intelligent sci-fi piece that captures the flavor of Philip K. Dick's work (I haven't read A Scanner Darkly, but I have read some of his other novels) - both the paranoid fantasy and the dark humor. Robert Downey Jr. is hilarious in this movie, and there are a number of scenes that are very funny in their depictions of the random shit that stoned people talk about when they're just sitting around. That's one of Linklater's strengths as well, of course, and this movie plays sort of like Blade Runner crossed with Dazed and Confused. The rotoscoping (which was why the film was delayed for so long) works really well to create a sense of the surreal and put you on the same level as the slightly out of it characters. And unlike Waking Life, which looked great but was an annoying, meandering mess, this film has enough plot that its occasional ponderous diversions work well within the context of the story as a whole. The story, like much of Dick's work, remains relevant today, and it's political without being heavy-handed or distracting from the humor or the characters. The kind of smart sci-fi film we see about once a year, if we're lucky, and this year we are. Opened limited July 7; in Las Vegas this week

Strangers With Candy (Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Carlo Alban, Maria Thayer, dir. Paul Dinello)
I saw this at CineVegas and absolutely hated it, although the TV show it's based on has a dedicated cult following. Even though I'd never liked the show, I thought I'd give the movie a chance since I usually only flipped past the show for a minute or two before deciding it wasn't worth my time. Well, after spending 90 minutes with this movie, I confirmed that whatever people see in these characters (and Amy Sedaris in particular, whom I can't stand even in talk show appearances) is lost on me. The humor is so smug and condescending and repetitive, the characters are irritating and the central gag (Sedaris as 47-year-old ex-junkie back in high school) gets old after, well, about as long as I used to turn on the TV show for. Opened limited June 28; in Las Vegas this week

Wordplay (documentary, dir. Patrick Creadon)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I was pleasantly surprised at how rich the Scrabble documentary Word Wars was, and this one doesn't have quite as much depth but is still very entertaining, even if you're not into crossword puzzles. I imagine we're reaching the end of the line for these documentaries about nerds who compete in tournaments, though - what's next, Mind Boggled? Opened limited June 16; in Las Vegas this week

You, Me and Dupree (Owen Wilson, Matt Dillon, Kate Hudson, Michael Douglas, dir. Anthony & Joe Russo)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
So many things about this movie annoyed me, but especially the way all the characters are so passive-aggressive that you just want to punch them in the face, and despite allegedly loving/caring about one another, they treat each other so poorly and make up so insincerely that you can't help but imagine that after the credits roll they'll be right back at it. An unfunny, overlong slog with unpleasant characters - what's not to like? Wide release

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Weekend viewing

Tamara (Jeremy Haft, 2005)
There are far better things I could be watching, I know (I did re-watch The Third Man with my film-nerd discussion group over the weekend, too, though), but I really do need my cheesy horror movie fix every now and again, especially of the "hot, homicidal witch" variety. It probably goes without saying that this is a bad movie, but it's got a few glimmers of promise that make it even worse for seeing how much better it could have been. Tamara is a frumpy high school outcast who dies in a prank gone wrong and comes back to life as a slutty, evil temptress to take revenge on her tormenters. It's sort of like Carrie meets She's All That. And, really, a movie with that tagline sounds awesome to me, but this is way too skimpy on the gore and especially the T&A to be a good trashy slasher movie. And its stabs at social commentary - Tamara's revenge on the bulimic pretty girl involves getting her to literally eat herself, and her revenge on two macho jocks consists of forcing them to have sex with each other - are all half-assed and quickly abandoned. I guess I'll just have to go watch The Craft again instead.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

New comics 7/6

The All-New Atom #1 (Gail Simone/John Byrne, DC)
Of all the series launching out of DC's Brave New World post-Infinite Crisis event, this to me seemed the most promising. I've heard a lot about the quality of Simone's writing, and the only thing I've read from her was the One Year Later issue of Birds of Prey, which was unimpressive. This is much better, a fun little superhero story with a few offbeat touches thanks to being based on ideas by Grant Morrison (one assumes - that's a little vague). I'm not really familiar with the original Atom, so it doesn't bother me to see someone new take his place, and Simone does a good job of tying things in to the original character without getting bogged down in continuity (unlike the headache-inducing first issue of the new Flash series - ugh). It's not brilliant, but it's got plenty of potential and some clever writing (I like the bit with the famous quotes in footnotes, but I could imagine it getting old really quickly), and as long as it doesn't get mired in DC's dense ever-present continuity, I just might keep reading.

Batman: Secrets #5 (Sam Kieth, DC)
Kieth wraps the series up a little anti-climactically, but he's not exactly the right guy to write or draw a huge fight scene between Batman and the Joker, so I don't mind. In the end, this was one of his typical stories about buried childhood trauma surfacing in the form of some superhuman manifestation (i.e., dressing up like a bat and fighting crime), but the new event he grafted onto Bruce Wayne's childhood never went beyond feeling forced. This is still the best mainstream story that Kieth's done in a while (certainly better than the muddled Scratch), and the Terry Ammons character is another one of his fascinatingly damaged females; I'd love to see a whole series about her someday.

Beyond! #1 (Dwayne McDuffie/Scott Kolins, Marvel)
I picked this up because it looked like a fun superhero story with some little-used characters that hearkened back to old-school crossovers. Which it is, I guess, but it's so incredibly generic and dull that I can't possibly imagine caring enough to read even one more issue. It was nice to see both Gravity and the Hood get some more face time in a comic, but the cast is filled out with a couple of second-rate Spider-Man villains, cast-off Avengers and, most pointlessly, Spider-Man himself, who certainly doesn't need any more exposure. McDuffie's writing is serviceable superhero stuff and nothing more, but his cliffhanger ending, which actually involves killing Spider-Man, is mind-numbingly stupid. If you're going to build a cliffhanger, it has to be at least mildly believable. Add in Kolins' rough, globby art, and this is not something I'm going to be following, no matter how much I love Gravity.

Detective Comics #821 (Paul Dini/J.H. Williams III, DC)
Thanks to DC's seemingly random choices of what to send in their publicity packages, I ended up with two or three issues of James Robinson's run on Detective and Batman, which thoroughly unimpressed me, and assumed this was another when it came in the mail thanks to the Simone Bianchi cover that looks just like all his other covers. Luckily I took a second look, because this is actually the start of Dini and Williams' run on the book, and anything Williams draws is worth checking out. I was greatly disappointed that he left Desolation Jones, so it was a treat to see him do equally stunning work on something so mundane as a Batman story. Not that it's a bad story - Dini crafts a perfectly entertaining little done-in-one tale, and I like that he's not going for big arcs or complex plotting. There's so little continuity in this issue that it reads like a Legends of the Dark Knight tale, but for someone like me tired of dense DC continuity, that's perfect. As long as Williams stays on the art and the stories are self-contained, this looks like a pleasant and welcome surprise.

Y the Last Man #47 (Brian K. Vaughan/Goran Sudzuka, DC/Vertigo)
Yet another self-contained "origin," this time for Dr. Mann, and while again I don't see these flashbacks as providing any blindingly new insights into the characters we've been reading about for so long, it's still a good story that held my interest. The framing sequence, though, with a great bit of misdirection, really got my attention, and the issue ends on a fascinating cliffhanger to which I can't wait to see the follow-up.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Movies opening this week

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, dir. Gore Verbinski)
I really think this is the worst would-be blockbuster of the summer. Worse than Click? Even Click made me laugh once or twice. Worse than The Da Vinci Code? At least Da Vinci sort of taught you some conspiracy theories, and was occasionally suspenseful. Worse than Poseidon? Well, maybe not worse than Poseidon, but at least Poseidon was shorter, by almost a whole hour. That right there is the first sign that something is wrong with this movie: It's two and a half goddamn hours long, which is at least 45 minutes longer than anyone should spend with even the best silly action movie about pirates. But this is far from the best silly action movie about pirates. The great thing about the original PoTC (which I maintain is horribly overrated and also way too goddamn long, but still fun) was the way it surprised you. Johnny Depp's performance came out of nowhere and was so charming and fresh that you couldn't help but be pleased. The plot was inconsequential but at least it moved things along, and you could sort of root for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to be united in twue wuv.

The plot of Dead Man's Chest makes no sense at all and goes on forever, making it really hard to care what happens to our heroes since it's nearly impossible to figure out what they're trying to accomplish. Bloom and Knightley are no longer star-crossed, so the love story is virtually nonexistent. And Depp's performance is by now expected, and he does nothing other than what you expect him to do. Without the novelty, you realize that it's really a one-note gag, and he doesn't bring anything new to it here. The producers have clearly tried hard to figure out what people liked about the first movie and pile on more of it, so we get tons of cool but distracting special effects that look like they belong in a different movie, endless chase scenes, and mugging from Depp. Worst of all, after slogging through two and a half hours of this, you get to the end only to discover a fucking cliffhanger! Not a single one of the plot threads is resolved, and you're left completely unsatisfied, as Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer tease you with the prospect of Pirates 3 next summer. Bastards. Wide release

Wah-Wah (Nicholas Hoult, Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, dir. Richard E. Grant)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
For a movie about divorce, colonial oppression and alcoholism, this is a pretty fluffy and inconsequential affair. It's got a bunch of good actors, but the material is sort of limp and lacks conviction. One of those movies that proves that indie films can be just as generic as blockbusters. Opened limited May 12; in Las Vegas this week

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Weekend viewing

Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980)
I realize that De Palma is known for his Hitchcock obsession, but I don't think I understood how far it went until seeing this movie, which is practically a remake of Psycho. The plot is different, but it's structured the same way, with the important character played by a big-name actress who gets killed about 40 minutes in, the transsexual killer, even the hokey psychological explanation epilogue. Then the ending uses the same cheap device as Carrie (which is one of my favorite movies, and I think the device is okay in a horror movie, but here it comes off as a cheat). Even though I spent at least half the time marveling at the ways De Palma apes Hithcock, I still thought this was a good movie for the way it successfully creates suspense and for De Palma's typical bravura technical skills. A wordless sequence in a museum near the beginning of the film is incredibly effective for its building of suspense and sexual tension, even though it ultimately has virtually nothing to do with the plot of the movie.

My New Gun (Stacy Cochran, 1992)
The cool thing about Netflix is that any time I am reading some random thing online about some movie that sounds interesting, I can pop over to Netflix and put it in my queue rather than trying to remember days or weeks later to pick it up at the video store. The bad thing about Netflix is that every random movie I read about online and thought sounded sort of interesting eventually shows up at my house, and I watch it, and think, "Why the hell did I want to see this movie?" Case in point: My New Gun, some random '90s indie with Diane Lane and James LeGros and Stephen Collins (aka the dad from 7th Heaven). Not funny enough to be a comedy, not dramatic enough to be a drama, not interesting enough to deserve a place in anyone's Netflix queue. But good lord is Diane Lane beautiful.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Summer TV update

This is shaping up to be an amazingly good summer for quality TV. The shows I've been watching rival the best stuff that's on during the regular season, and I've also seen pilots for USA's Psych and Sci Fi's Eureka, both premiering in the next week and a half, and both of those look promising as well. Good thing I don't ever plan to leave the house.

The 4400 (USA)
I've always referred to this show as a cheesy guilty pleasure, but somehow it's evolved into something less guilty and more pleasure. It still has plenty of cheesy elements, and leans heavily on sci-fi cliches at times, but over the course of three seasons, it's built up a complex and interesting mythology, and moved away from its X-Files-lite "monster of the week" format to a more serialized take that widens the scope and treats the 4400 themselves sort of like the mutants of Marvel Comics (but with enough differences that it doesn't come across as a rip-off). This most recent two-parter, with Maia's disappearance, really highlighted the ways that the characters have evolved and the complex relationships that have developed. Like last season, it's obvious that they are leading up to something big, with the grown-up Isabelle and the imminent return of Jordan Collier, and they're doing a very good job of building suspense. This still isn't quite at the level of some of the other sci-fi shows I like (Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Invasion), but I think now I'd definitely keep watching even during the regular season.

The Closer (TNT)
Despite my general apathy toward police procedurals, I still really love this show, and that's all down to the wonderful characters. The writers and especially the actors have crafted such incredibly three-dimensional, fascinating characters, even with minimal personal moments amid the murder mysteries of the week. Kyra Sedgwick reveals more layers to her Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson every week, and it seems like the writers have gotten the hint that viewers like the character stuff, because there's definitely more of it this season. Not that it takes away from the crime-solving, and they do a good job with that too. The mysteries are always good enough to at least hold my interest, and often provide the catalysts for some of the more introspective developments. It's great that the ratings have been so high for this show and that TNT already picked up a third season; it's one of the best things on TV right now, and not just for people who like cop shows.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)
This was a real pleasant surprise last summer, a show I had no expectations for that turned out to be brilliantly hilarious. It's great that FX has given it another shot after last year's relatively low ratings and pairing with the awful Starved. I thought the two-episode premiere was really good, just as offensively funny as last year, and I like the increased focus on continuity that allows for some character development. I'm still not sure about the addition of Danny DeVito to the cast - he was funny in the first two episodes, but I think his character could get a little old appearing in every single episode. He takes the focus off of the great dynamic among the four core characters. At the same time, his whole storyline has opened up new possibilities, and I like that Anne Archer as Dennis and Dee's mom is going to be in at least one more episode. Mainly, I just love the uncompromisingly bleak view of humanity that this show has, and the way it makes that view so incredibly funny.

Pepper Dennis (The WB)
I realize this show got terrible reviews and I am currently the only person in America watching it, but I'm glad that the WB is going away and doesn't care about its ratings and thus was willing to run all 13 episodes, ending tonight. I really think this is a highly underrated show, and Rebecca Romijn and Brooke Burns, both former models, are proving themselves to be deft comic actresses, even if no one is paying attention. There's still a certain tension that's obviously never going to be resolved between the predictable, trite elements of the "single working girl in the city looks for love" premise and the more quirky stylistic tics that I like, especially the rapid-fire, screwball-comedy-style dialogue, but even when things are predictable and cutesy, the show is still entertaining and just plain fun. The writers have done a good job of developing characters to care about, even when they end up in absurd situations. Certainly if the show had kept going, they would have needed to evolve the Pepper-Charlie relationship so that every episode didn't revolve around whether they'll finally admit their feelings for each other, but tonight's finale with the wedding looks like the culmination of all that, and it'll be a nice note to go out on. If this show ever gets a DVD release, it's worth looking out for.

Rescue Me (FX)
There's been a lot of heated online debate recently about this show, particularly a scene in the June 20 episode with Denis Leary's Tommy Gavin forcing himself on his wife sexually (much of this debate has been about whether or not to call this event "rape," and I'm not quite sure myself what to call it). I'm not going to get into that here, because it's been discussed to death in numerous forums, most notably the Television Without Pity message boards, where co-creator Peter Tolan showed up to defend the show. I will say that the fact that so much impassioned rhetoric has ensued is a testament to the show's dramatic power, and whatever you think happened in that particular scene, it's also a bold direction for the characters. I was sort of down on this show at the end of last season, which had a lot of cliched and predictable storylines. But they've done a good job so far of dealing with the aftermaths of those storylines (the scenes with Uncle Teddy in jail are hilarious), and introducing new ones that are a little more complex. Tolan swears that he is trying to tone down the misogyny, but in the end that's one of the show's charms. One of the reasons the infamous scene didn't really bother me is that I've long since come to terms with the fact that this show is about unlikeable people doing stupid and/or bad things, but they're almost always fascinating to watch.

Monday, July 03, 2006

New comics 6/28

Nextwave #6 (Warren Ellis/Stuart Immonen, Marvel)
This issue is light on wackiness and heavy on action, which Immonen does a good job with, but it's not exactly the book's forte. Of course, it's not like Ellis abandons the absurdity, and I especially liked this issue's Atomic Puppies ("yap yap bang"). Now that the team has faced off against Dirk Anger for six straight issues and sort of defeated him at the end of this issue, I hope they move on to some new villains that aren't just sent as distractions by H.A.T.E., and maybe get some motivation and purpose other than just stopping Dirk Anger. Also possibly more Atomic Puppies.

Runaways #17 (Brian K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona, Marvel)
It's good to see Karolina back, even if it might just be so she can be the one who dies in the next issue. My guess is that the character who gets shot in this issue's cliffhanger is the one person guaranteed not to die next time, since that would be a little too obvious. Once again, I'm struck by how much of a loss it will be no matter which of these characters dies, and that's a testament to how well Vaughan's developed them, but it also means he'll have to tell a great story next to make whoever's death it is seem worthwhile.

Savage Dragon #127 (Erik Larsen, Image)
Larsen does his own take on "One Year Later," taking us far ahead in the world ruled by Mr. Glum. I like the way he's committed to this storyline, and that this totalitarian society is different from the one ruled by Sebastian Khan that came about back in issue 75. The whole world is brainwashed to attack Dragon on sight, and even if we know he's going to triumph eventually, it's still a pretty dire situation for him. Larsen also shows how his commitment to telling stories in real time brings about real change, as Angel is now far from the cute, inquisitive kid she was when Larsen first introduced her, and she's now clearly entering puberty and experiencing romantic feelings (for Mr. Glum, which is a little disturbing). Although Angel's blunt little kid bit was always entertaining, I respect Larsen for sticking with his established formula and letting it go by letting her grow up. Once again he proves, even after 127 issues, that he's capable of taking things in new directions.

X-Factor #8 (Peter David/Dennis Calero, Marvel)
This is a Civil War crossover, but David integrates it pretty seamlessly and keeps on with all his other major plotlines - sometimes it seems like he's the only writer at Marvel still paying attention to the repercussions of House of M. I've still yet to be convinced that Layla Miller is a real, worthwhile character, but she's getting there, and I'm curious to see what David does with Quicksilver. I didn't read Son of M, but I heard good things about it, and David had an interesting take on the character back in his earlier X-Factor days.

Young Avengers #12 (Allan Heinberg/Jim Cheung, Marvel)
Finally the first season wraps up, and it does feel like a finale in many ways. Heinberg resolves most of the long-running conflicts, gives the team a definitive lineup and codenames, and sets them on their way. After all the fanfare and high quality this book debuted with, it's sort of petered out a bit, and honestly I'm not that disappointed to see it take some time off. It's still a fun superhero book, but the lateness has hurt and the sense of excitement has waned a bit - this issue is a big fight scene, mostly, and a nice little coda, but that's it. I'm hoping the time away will find the creators returning with renewed energy. This issue also has a weird random back-up strip by Karl Kesel and David Hahn about some new character called the Masked Marvel, which is basically a really long and not very funny comics industry in-joke. It's kind of cute and has nice art by Hahn, but I'm not exactly sure what the point is, since this character seems like more of a one-note joke than a potential new star.