Wednesday, August 30, 2006

TV premiering tonight: Justice

I've been really disappointed in Fox's entire slate of new shows; it's the only major network that doesn't have a single new offering that I plan to watch beyond the first episode. This show is maybe not as bad as last week's Vanished, but it's not any good, either, and it's so obviously the product of the Jerry Bruckheimer factory plugging one new element (a high-profile L.A. law firm) into their existing (and very successful) procedural format. Since it's on Fox, everything has been amped up annoyingly, and while I can usually tolerate something like CSI or Without a Trace even if I don't exactly like it, this show just gave me a headache, with all the characters constantly yelling and the breakneck pace and the busy camera work and Victor Garber, who was so great on Alias, delivering every line with as much smarm as possible.

And all of this isn't quite enough to distract you from the fact that the show is built around yet another humdrum mystery, and the gimmick of showing what really happened at the end after the verdict is read didn't work on Fox's 2004 summer show The Jury, which at least had a little more dramatic weight. Like Vanished, this will probably get decent enough ratings, but it's not going to become a big hit or get people talking. It's like Fox has just stopped trying this season since 99 percent of America watches American Idol, and that's all they need. Fox, Wednesdays, 9 p.m.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Vacation viewing

Another week off, sleeping until three in the afternoon and watching movies. Why would I ever want to go anywhere?

Dead & Breakfast (Matthew Leutwyler, 2004)
The box alleges that this is the American answer to Shaun of the Dead, but it's really more in the tradition of stuff like Dead Alive and Evil Dead. Basically, it's a gonzo low-budget horror-comedy with buckets of blood, but while the gore is abundant and sort of cool, the humor is weak and the plot (which has to make at least a rudimentary sort of sense) is barely there. It reminded me of a much sloppier version of James Gunn's Slither, which had a similar throwback feel and anything-goes sense of humor, but was much tighter, better paced, scarier and funnier.

Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945)
Totally ridiculous melodrama redeemed only by Gene Tierney's performance as a woman who is essentially a sociopath and really, really wants her husband all to herself. She has one awesomely chilling scene where she watches impassively from behind dark glasses as the husband's disabled brother drowns. And I did like the part where she gives herself an abortion by throwing herself down a flight of stairs (like I said, totally ridiculous). But most of the movie was rather tedious, and Cornel Wilde is beyond wooden as the object of Tierney's crazed affections. There's also a really tacked-on courtroom saga at the end, although it does give Vincent Price the chance to chew some scenery.

Monster House (Gil Kenan, 2006)
Strangely enough, this just might be the best big studio film of the summer, and I'm glad I went out and caught it on a big screen before it disappeared. That's not to say that it's a masterpiece, but it's a lot smarter and more human than almost any other wannabe blockbuster that's come out this summer. Although computer-animated films have become a dime a dozen, and sometimes look like they cost about a dime to make, this one truly looks spectacular, and solves all the problems that the similarly produced (via motion capture) Polar Express had with its characters looking creepy. The solution, as it has been with other CGI movies, is to make the people look less human and more cartoony, thus avoiding the uncanny valley. Monster House also has characters that feel like real kids, a complete lack of shrill pop culture references, main characters who are not voiced by celebrities (and celebrity voices that are unobtrusive, save Jon Heder) and some genuinely funny jokes. It's just a good, solid movie that says something sweet but substantive about growing up, and has a big scary sentient house in it, too.

Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1987)
I freely admit to not getting this movie. Apparently it has a rabid cult following that finds it hilarious and endlessly quotable, but I don't think I laughed once, and I just came away baffled. There's a certain value in the way it's the complete antithesis to all those "quaint little British towns are good for the soul" movies, as its two central slackers decide to take a holiday in the country only to discover that it's a horribly unpleasant place. But I still don't quite understand why it's set in 1969, or what the whole bit with the gay uncle was meant to convey, or...well, any of it, really. Maybe it would help if I were British.

Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000)
This is a sprawling, understated-yet-epic (nearly three hours long) family drama from Taiwan, which strangely (or perhaps not) reminded me of a Robert Altman film. It's sometimes a little too slow and a little too obtuse, but it had a lot of wonderful moments and at the end I felt like I knew the characters really well, which is always the mark of a good film. Completely the opposite of what you stereotypically think of Asian films, in a very good way.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

New comics 8/23

Astonishing X-Men #16 (Joss Whedon/John Cassaday, Marvel)
Sixteen issues in, Whedon has finally provided a genuine, story-based reason for his resurrection of Colossus. Granted, some other character could have served the same purpose in the story, but at least the resurrection now ties in to the ongoing Breakworld plotline that's been going since the beginning, and doesn't seem like something tacked on randomly just so Whedon could use a character he likes. That's all secondary to the main plot, though, which continues the Hellfire Club assault, and hints that not all may be as it seems with Emma, which is more interesting than her simply reverting to villainy. The Wolverine-as-scared-child stuff was funny, but after last issue I've kind of had enough of it. And while I like Kitty taking charge, it does sometimes feel like Whedon is pushing too hard to make her a badass. Overall, though, still a strong issue and a much more interesting storyline than the one with Danger (who sadly is still around in the Breakworld subplot).

Fell #6 (Warren Ellis/Ben Templesmith, Image)
Another totally creepy and disturbing self-contained tale, balanced by some sweet and even touching ongoing character development. This is the kind of balance I wish Ellis would bring to Nextwave; you can still read this issue on its own and get a complete mystery, but there's also a sense of forward motion so that it doesn't just seem like the book is repeating itself. This book may come out sporadically, but just about every issue is its own little masterpiece.

Jack of Fables #2 (Bill Willingham & Matthew Sturges/Tony Akins, DC/Vertigo)
Stronger than the first issue, but I still have a tough time seeing this as anything other than an extended storyline from the main book. We even get plot points spilling over and introductions of new fables (actually, mostly nursery-rhyme characters like Humpty Dumpty and Mary Mary Quite Contrary). With the sprawling cast of the main book, there's no reason this couldn't have been a four-issue diversion, and at this point Jack seems like too much of a cipher to me to carry a whole series. But I did find some of the prison camp stuff pretty creepy, and I like that Jack is rallying the inmates by the end, because I think a whole series set in the camp would never work. I've got doubts anyway, but in the short term this is still enjoyable because it's like getting two issues of Fables a month.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Movies opening this week

Beerfest (Paul Soter, Erik Stolhanske, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, dir. Jay Chandrasekhar)
Despite the generally vulgar and sophomoric nature of their humor, I have a soft spot for the Broken Lizard guys, and I generally enjoyed their last two films, Super Troopers and Club Dread (and, to be perfectly honest, chuckled at the handful of Broken Lizard-esque moments in Dukes of Hazzard, directed by BL's Jay Chandrasekhar). I came to Super Troopers thanks to its underground cult hit reputation, and was a little disappointed, and came to Club Dread expecting very little and was pleasantly surprised. So I approached Beerfest with mild enthusiasm and came out of it with mild disappointment. Like Dukes, it had a couple of funny moments, and the troupe approach everything they do with such enthusiasm that you can't help getting caught up in it sometimes. But the premise seemed much more limiting than their other films, and the story was too conventional and linear to allow for enough amusingly weird diversions. I still think these guys are talented, and I like the idea of a cohesive comedy troupe consistently making mainstream films, which is rare, but I think this one is a dud. Right after Club Dread came out, I read an article that said BL had a project about philosophers set in ancient Greece in the pipeline, and that sounds just weird enough to be awesome. Wide release

Idlewild (Andre Benjamin, Antwan A. Patton, Terrence Howard, Paula Patton, dir. Bryan Barber)
I've never been an OutKast fan, but they are always pushing boundaries in music and are clearly continuing to do so in movies. Although this has been on the shelf for perhaps two years and has been getting mixed reviews, I was still excited to see it because it's obviously like nothing else out there. And the aspects of it that actually were unique and genre-bending I thought were fascinating. The musical numbers are vibrant and exciting, both visually and aurally inventive, and the combination of hip-hop and swing-era styles works very well. Barber is a music video guy who knows how to make music cinematic, and whenever he's doing that the movie is great. But for a musical, there's not nearly enough music, and the long dramatic stretches are inert and boring, even though Terrence Howard makes a great menacing villain. The plot (essentially two plots, one for Benjamin and one for Patton) is paint-by-numbers predictable, which doesn't matter when the music starts, but that's not nearly often enough. Watching the wonderful Busby Berkeley-style production number that Benjamin does over the closing credits was probably the most fun I had at the whole movie, and that's too bad. Wide release

Invincible (Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, Elizabeth Banks, dir. Ericson Core)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I am so not the target audience for inspirational, based-on-a-true-story sports movies, although they occasionally get me. This is a totally mediocre example of the genre, so if you like that sort of thing, maybe wait for video. Wide release

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Small town sci-fi: Eureka and Three Moons Over Milford

Summertime means indulging in watching TV shows I probably wouldn't bother with when there are five other things competing for my attention every night, and so I've been watching these two shows even though they aren't all that good. Maybe it's because both have interesting concepts that they frustratingly squander, to varying degrees, and I'm continuing to watch in the hopes that someday they'll finally live up to their potentials. When I reviewed Eureka (Sci Fi, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.) before it first premiered, I found it pleasant but a little boring, and unfortunately the boring side has won out over the pleasant as time has worn on. Part of the problem is that many of the fun, interesting actors from the pilot - Maury Chaykin, Greg Germann, Matt Frewer - either disappeared entirely or make only sporadic appearances in later episodes. Lately I find myself doing other things while the show is on, and this week I missed the first 10 minutes and it didn't seem to affect my understanding or enjoyment of the episode in any way.

The problem with Eureka is that it sets itself up as quirky and whimsical, but the comedy is mostly leaden and the plots are all tired sci-fi cliches. A small town full of oddball scientists should be a place with infinite potential, but each episode feels like a pale recycling of the last. And the tacked-on conspiracy storyline smacks of trying to cash in on the popularity of serialized genre shows. I'd love for Sci Fi to come up with a lighthearted show as an effective counterpoint to the relentless grimness of Battlestar Galactica, but Eureka is so far from BSG's quality that it isn't even in the same galaxy.

Three Moons Over Milford (ABC Family, Sundays, 8 p.m.) has an even better concept that it squanders even more completely. The show posits a world in which an asteroid has splintered the moon into three pieces, and people expect the world may end any day now. Although the post-apocalyptic is a familiar device in sci-fi (and CBS's upcoming Jericho explores life in a small town after a nuclear war), the pre-apocalyptic is something much less common (the one example I can think of off-hand is the 1998 Canadian film Last Night, which I also thought was better in concept than in execution). The idea of exploring how society would function if people expected the world to end at any moment but it was also possible that it would go on indefinitely is fascinating to me, but Milford just uses it as a background device to give its characters excuses to be extra wacky. Whenever someone does something slightly offbeat, they just say, "three moons," as if that explains it all, and otherwise the concept is rarely even referenced. Instead it's just another boring, low-rent ABC Family show, with a town full of breezy, goofy characters in the vein of Gilmore Girls, only not nearly as clever. Allegedly it gets better, and like Eureka it's got some interesting actors - Nora Dunn is a regular, and guest stars include Barry Bostwick and Ed Begley Jr. - but at this point it's barely holding my interest.

Still, for now I keep watching, and I think of it like aspirational viewing - maybe somehow my hopes and dreams for the ideal really cool and interesting shows with these concepts will come into being. That probably isn't going to happen, though, and once the fall season starts in earnest, these shows are off my viewing radar - as if I'd even consider watching something like Eureka over Veronica Mars.

Monday, August 21, 2006

TV premiering tonight: Vanished

Fox is getting a jump on the fall season, premiering this show more than a month before some shows are starting on other networks. The season premiere of Prison Break is tonight as well, and the network is clearly banking on the appeal of Vanished to the same people who enjoy the serialized, conspiracy-laden style of Prison Break. And the two shows do have something in common, in that they set up poorly conceived grand conspiracies that don't seem like they'll hold up over the course of multiple episodes (in this case, a Senator's wife goes missing, kicking off a series of head-slapping revelations that nothing is as it seems!). I may have given up on Prison Break, but I'd still be willing to bet it's more exciting than this show, which is full of stilted dialogue and wooden acting (Rebecca Gayheart is particularly awful as an ambitious reporter) and pales in comparison to NBC's very similar Kidnapped, which isn't even all that good.

Even though this is part of the new trend of serialized shows that follow one event over the course of the whole season, it's got a very pedestrian, procedural feel about it, and there's none of the exciting intrigue that makes shows like Lost or 24 or even Prison Break addictive week after week. The characters are boring, and if we can't care about them, then it's hard to care about the mysterious things that may be happening to them. Like anything, the serialized, single-event concept will become formulaic with overuse, and this show is merely one of the first signs of that happening. Fox, Mondays, 9 p.m.

Ebert's fill-ins

I just finished watching filmmaker, novelist and comic book writer John Ridley fill in for Roger Ebert opposite Richard Roeper this week, and I thought he did a perfectly decent job, as did Kevin Smith last week (I missed the first fill-in episode with Jay Leno two weeks ago). According to the statement he put out a few days ago, Ebert has a long recovery ahead of him, and if he's able to get back on TV at all it won't be for a while. Of course I wish the best for Ebert - he's only 64, and if Stanley Kauffmann can still be churning out reviews at age 90, there's no reason that Ebert shouldn't be around that long or longer. Regardless of what you think of his opinions, or his recent alleged softness, Ebert has done more to bring respect and attention to film criticism than anyone since Pauline Kael, and maybe since James Agee.

So obviously the best thing would be to have Ebert on the balcony across from Roeper, but since that isn't going to be possible for a while, I think they're really doing a disservice to the show's audience and to the profession that Ebert has so long championed by bringing in people like Leno, Smith and Ridley as guest critics. Now, at least Ridley once hosted a movie review show on AMC, and certainly all of them seem to have fairly deep knowledge of film. (And, I know, Roeper himself wasn't exactly an accomplished film critic before joining the show.) But, according to Phil Rosenthal, only one upcoming guest host is a film critic (Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune), and others on tap include actors Aisha Tyler and Fred Willard. Certainly they'll be entertaining, but to me the message the show is sending out is: We don't need professional film critics to review movies. Someone like Ebert who's spent his entire life studying, analyzing and critiquing films? He can be replaced with an actor or a talk-show host.

I know that being an insightful and effective critic in print is far different from being engaging and entertaining on TV, and one thing that neither Ebert nor Roeper get enough credit for is their charisma and charm on the air, which is an entirely different skill-set than being able to speak or write intelligently about movies. But surely there are critics other than Michael Phillips who would be worthy guests for Roeper for just one week? I don't expect to see Armond White or N.P. Thompson, but what about Manohla Dargis? Scott Foundas? Dana Stevens? David Edelstein? Hell, I'd even accept Peter Travers; at least he's genuinely a critic. According to Wikipedia, Ebert had plenty of real, serious critics on as guests after Gene Siskel died.

This may very well be a crossroads for Ebert and Roeper's show and for film criticism in general. It may be a little hard to believe that the entire industry could hinge on one man, but if Ebert doesn't come back, it's entirely possible the show may end and the only full TV show dedicated to film criticism will be off the air. No one these days comes close to being as famous as Ebert for being a film critic, not even Roeper. Rather than letting high-profile film criticism fade out with Ebert, it'd be nice to see the one show with the power to do so doing something to support its continued existence, or at the very least showing some respect to the profession.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

New comics 8/16

The Boys #1 (Garth Ennis/Darick Robertson, DC/Wildstorm)
The concept of this series is so tired that I never would have picked it up were it not for the involvement of Ennis and especially Robertson, whose work I've missed while he spent the last few years drawing superheroes at Marvel. Maybe at one time the idea of a vulgar, violent book about a team of government agents who monitor superheroes would have been revolutionary, but at this point there have been so many of these jaded, graphic reimaginings of the superhero concept that this is far from original. And although Ennis is a clever writer, a lot of the stuff in this issue is trying so hard to be daring and edgy that it comes off like someone doing a bad Ennis impersonation. At the same time, Robertson's clear, detailed art is always a pleasure, and Ennis is talented enough that I'd like to think he can overcome the unoriginality of the concept and make it into something interesting. So I'll give it another issue (the next one is out in two weeks anyway), but so far I'm less than impressed.

Nextwave #7 (Warren Ellis/Stuart Immonen)
Funny as ever, but I am starting to wonder how long it can remain entertaining without something resembling character development or an ongoing plotline. The self-contained nature of the stories is exactly the appeal of this series in the first place, so maybe I shouldn't be complaining, but when after seven issues I still have trouble differentiating between Elsa and Tabitha except by their hair color, maybe something needs to change.

Runaways #19 (Brian K. Vaughan/Mike Norton, Marvel)
Once again, Vaughan defines this book by forward motion, and even while the characters are still mourning Gert's death, a new threat is brewing in the background and a new team member (Xavin) is joining the lineup. I'm probably most interested in what Chase is up to away from the team as he recruits Lotus for some mysterious purpose. Even though I miss Gert, there is so much going on here (and she's in a whole flashback sequence anyway) that it doesn't really bother me.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Movies opening this week

Accepted (Justin Long, Jonah Hill, Lewis Black, dir. Steve Pink)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
My colleague Carol Cling makes an amusing typo/Freudian slip in her review, referring to the title at one point as Acceptable. And that's a positive review. This is exactly the kind of late-summer comedy you expect - not horrible, but without many redeeming qualities, either. Wide release

Little Miss Sunshine (Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Abigail Breslin, dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)
For me, this was the most anticipated movie opening this week, a Sundance favorite that's been getting glowing reviews and seems like the kind of thing I would really enjoy. And I did enjoy it, but I don't think I'd put it down as one of the best movies of the year. As some have said, it's basically an indie version of National Lampoon's Vacation, and the script is rather predictable and full of fairly stereotypical characters. Still, the excellent actors give life to the cliches, and Dayton and Faris have a nice, casual directorial style that soft-pedals some of the story's excessive quirkiness. The ending is still a little too much, and overall the film has an air of trying too hard to be offbeat and loveable, but it more often than not succeeds in that effort almost despite itself. Opened limited July 26; wide release this week

Once in a Lifetime (documentary, dir. John Dower & Paul Crowder)
I saw this movie at CineVegas back in June, and even though I have no interest in soccer I still found it engaging and entertaining. It's got great production values for a documentary, and the 1970s-style graphics to fit the time period put me in mind of another slick documentary, Inside Deep Throat. Like that movie, this is occasionally a little too slick and glib for its own good, and doesn't delve deeply enough below the surface. But it's still informative and fun to watch, and you don't have to be a soccer fan (or even a sports fan) to get something out of it. Opened limited July 7; in Las Vegas this week

Snakes on a Plane (Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips, snakes, dir. David R. Ellis)
What else is left to say about this movie? There's "OMG! Snakes on a Plane! Greatest movie of all time!" There's "Don't give in to the hype, it's just a crappy B-movie." There's "Don't give in to the backlash to the hype, it's actually pretty fun." There's "What's this movie about the snakes on a plane or something?" Whatever I say is going to be a repeat of something someone else said, or subject to accusations of either being swept up in the hype or being unfair to the movie because of the hype. So I will just say this: I had fun. I laughed multiple times. I even found occasional parts sort of suspenseful. I doubt I will watch the movie again, or think about it much after the coverage has waned, but it was more enjoyable than the average cheap summer thriller. It's not a "so bad it's good" movie, because it's clearly trying to be bad, with plenty of intentional camp, and when it's actually bad it's really just boring. It should have been 15 minutes shorter, because there actually is a limit to the entertainment value of snakes on a plane. The plot, already paper-thin, just sort of peters out. But Jackson is Jackson, and David Koechner and Kenan Thompson actually offer some pretty amusing supporting performances. When Jackson delivers the famous "I've had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane" line, it's the most obvious awkward insert you can imagine, and that sort of defines the film: awkward, pandering, ill-constructed, but still pretty damn entertaining. Wide release

Monday, August 14, 2006

Weekend viewing

Local Hero (Bill Forsyth, 1983)
This is, in many ways, the precursor to such twee "big city guy learns to relax while in small town" comedies as Doc Hollywood and such twee "aren't quaint British villages so quaint?" comedies as Waking Ned Devine, and yet it's so unassuming and disarming in its use and subversion of the cliches of those genres that it ends up winning you over. I would never expect such a film to be a good selection for the Film Nerd Discussion Group, but it worked out well. Forsyth builds compelling, believable characters out of recognizable types, but he's also got plenty of goofy humor. A nice little film that shows you can make something good out of a well-worn premise if you pay close attention to character and craft an organic story with a bit of subtlety.

Oldboy (Chanwook Park, 2003)
I've never been particularly plugged-in to much of the underground film coming from Asia, since so much of it is either martial-arts movies or anime, neither of which holds much appeal for me (I have seen Battle Royale on an import DVD, which is as close as I get). So I come to Oldboy after the hype has kind of died out, and to me what exemplifies it is the quote on the front of the DVD box from some critic (I forget who) who says that the movie "comes with the Quentin Tarantino seal of approval," or something like that. Not that it's good, just that Tarantino likes it. Granted, there are actual glowing reviews from real critics on the back, but the whole "badass style over substance" kick that characterizes a lot of the stuff Tarantino and/or his fans consider cool really typifies this movie, I think. Not that I didn't like it - the style is phenomenal, and there are some unbelievable shots, most notably a one-take fight sequence that's shot like a side-scrolling video game - but it did feel a little "so what?" at the end. It's way too long and has too many twists, and the ultimate secret of why the main character was locked up and tormented for 15 years is a bit of a disappointment. But it looks great along the way, and plays with some interesting themes even if it's a little more interested in shock moments than in provoking real thought.

They Came Back (Robin Campillo, 2004)
Really creepy and well-made French zombie movie, but not "zombie movie" in any of the typical ways you might think of it. Instead of rising from the grave all rotting and ready to eat people's brains, the dead in this movie simply come back, like the title implies (although the English title is, I think, intentionally sort of lurid; the French title, Les Revenants, literally means something more like "The Returnees"). They look completely normal and non-decrepit, although they are not all mentally there. Mainly they just want to go back to their jobs and families. I found this a completely fresh and unique take on the idea of the walking dead, and it's structured more as a serious drama than a horror movie, even if it's often really creepy and disturbing. I love how Campillo hits on certain things you'd think would be obvious about zombies, like the fact that most people who die are elderly, so most undead would also be old people, but never see in any actual zombie movies. This is really a film about grief, and about how people who've just come to terms with losing their loved ones have to come to terms with them coming back again, although not quite the same. The ending is a little disappointing, since it builds to a sort of horror movie-esque climax but then doesn't really follow through, but otherwise this was a really good and very different movie.

The Women (George Cukor, 1939)
Despite my occasional reservations about its sometimes sexist attitudes, I liked this movie a lot, and I think it probably deserves credit for being very progressive for 1939, even if it seems a little anti-feminist in 2006. Yes, the message turns out to be that you'll only be happy if you stay with your husband even if he cheats on you, but for most of the movie the women are clearly the ones in charge of everything, and even at the end when Mary goes back to her husband and gleefully dismisses her pride, it's under circumstances that she's engineered, so I suppose it's okay. And everything else is wonderful - the hilarious, crackling dialogue; the rich (in both senses of the word) characters; the remarkably frank approach to divorce (although I do love how they all have to travel to Reno to get no-fuss divorces). It's amazing how long it took me to notice that there are no men in the entire film, and the ways that Cukor and the screenwriters structure scenes to omit the men are sometimes remarkable. The scene with Mary's maid and cook recounting her entire argument with her husband (rather than showing him on-screen) is amazing, and reveals as much about the minor maid and cook characters as it does about Mary, and she's not in the scene at all. Really just a wonderfully entertaining film.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

New comics 8/9

Fables #52 (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham, DC/Vertigo)
Willingham clearly isn't going to let the Adversary stay in the background for long, since this issue begins a build-up to an all-out war between Fabletown and the Empire. Buckingham is back with a vengeance with beautiful renderings of the Snow Queen and Red Riding Hood, and the former is a welcome villainous presence, since Geppetto, even as the Adversary, isn't really that entertainingly evil. A four-page backup illustrated by Gene Ha that introduces Rapunzel into the book's world is nice but a little too short to do much other than whet the appetite. I imagine that these backups (there are three more coming) are just ways for Willingham to get the introductions out of the way so that these characters can appear seamlessly in the main stories some time down the road, which sort of seems like a cop-out. But the main story is so exciting and epic that it doesn't really bother me.

She-Hulk #10 (Dan Slott/Rick Burchett, Marvel)
Yet another new artist on this book, but Burchett's simple, straightforward style is an easy transition from Paul Smith and a good fit overall, so I hope he sticks around for a while. This issue has a nice mix of various storylines interweaving, and I like that even though there was only one issue that was an official Civil War crossover, Slott has integrated those elements into his ongoing narrative and is still using them as plot points. Now that's the way to write a book in a shared universe.

Spike vs. Dracula #5 (Peter David/Zach Howard & Nicola Scott, IDW)
I guess the problem with Joe Corroney on art wasn't that he was late, since this issue is out just two weeks after the last, with no attempt to get him back on art, apparently. Once again, the book suffers for his absence, especially since Howard and Scott (who split the book evenly) have completely divergent styles. Howard's cartoony style doesn't necessarily capture the likenesses of the characters, but it's kinetic and fun to look at, and tells the story well enough. But Scott has a much more realistic style that clashes alarmingly, and his storytelling is a little weak. Still, both are better than last issue's fill-in Mike Ratera. It's too bad that the series ended with such inconsistent art, because David turns in a very entertaining finale after last issue's weak story. He's got a great feel for the TV characters - this issue is set during the final season of Angel - and gives them some great banter while also wrapping up the somewhat haphazard saga of the rivalry between the two title characters. Five issues was probably more than this thin premise deserved, but it was mostly a fun read, marred only by the art difficulties in the second half.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Movies opening this week

Step Up (Channing Tatum, Jenna Dewan, Damaine Radcliff, dir. Anne Fletcher)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
The most amazing thing to me about this movie is that the writer is the same guy who wrote Save the Last Dance as well as a VH1 movie called The Way She Moves about love among salsa dancers, and he's never written anything else. That's it. Just the same movie three times, it looks like. I guess once you succeed at something in Hollywood, you just keep doing it over and over again until they stop paying you. Wide release

World Trade Center (Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, dir. Oliver Stone)
Honestly, I'm sort of glad not to have to review movies like this, because I'm generally not interested in dealing with politics, which are unavoidable when addressing this kind of film. I also just found the movie really unremarkable - it's successful at what it sets out to do, I suppose, and people who want to see it will probably get what they hope for out of it. But it's very timid and safe and Hollywood-ized, unlike Paul Greengrass' United 93, which at least retained some grit and made an effort to be as real as possible. A lot of people are talking about this movie now, which makes sense given its status as the first big Hollywood film to address 9/11, but being first doesn't necessarily grant longevity. I guarantee that five or ten years from now, when other people have made more complex, interesting movies about 9/11 that have something to say other than "Hooray for rescue workers!" this movie will be all but forgotten. Wide release

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Weekend viewing

Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
Cool little noir with Robert Mitchum and a great femme fatale performance from Jane Greer, who appears to have gone on to a lengthy but relatively undistinguished career, mostly in TV. Like most noirs, the plot eventually becomes incomprehensible and takes a back seat to the attitude, atmosphere and dialogue, all of which are dark and rich. I also liked that, unlike your typical noir, this took place as much in small towns and rural areas as it did in big cities; proof that there are seedy underbellies everywhere. Plus, an appropriately tragic ending by which nearly every major character is dead. Fun stuff.

Scoop (Woody Allen, 2006)
It's funny how unenthusiastically Allen seems to view his own career, treating each film as completely equal, so that when he makes a breakthrough and gets great reviews and seems to actually have something to say, he doesn't even notice since he's already halfway through the next film. All of which is to say that the quality of Match Point has no bearing on this movie, which is just another wan late-period Allen comedy. I actually haven't seen a lot of Allen's comedies of the last decade or so - Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion - but this wasn't as good as the one that I have seen, Small Time Crooks, which was rather amusing although ultimately forgettable. Scoop is just forgettable, rickety and tired and awkward, and the change of scenery (once again set in London) isn't enough to make it seem fresh.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

New comics 8/2

Agents of Atlas #1 (Jeff Parker/Leonard Kirk, Marvel)
I'm completely unfamiliar with the Golden Age Marvel characters being revived for this series, and I've never read anything Parker's done before, but I like the idea of exploring forgotten corners of Marvel continuity, and I like Leonard Kirk's art, which I haven't really seen while he's been busy on DC titles I don't read, so I was happy to give this a shot and I'm glad I did. It's nothing earth-shattering, but it's a fun superhero story with good use of continuity, from the old characters to elements of the short-lived Nick Fury's Howling Commandos series. There's a cliffhanger that makes me wonder what happens next, and that's enough to get me back for the next issue.

The All New Atom #2 (Gail Simone/John Byrne, DC)
Speaking of nothing earth-shattering, here's another solid, fun superhero story from Simone and Byrne. Grant Morrison's name is already out of the credits box, so the weird ideas are toned down a bit, and honestly I'm more interested in the main character and his supporting cast than in the bug-like villains who mangle verb tenses. I was pleasantly surprised with the first issue, but this one is a little more conventional and less surprising, but still enjoyable and worth continuing to give a shot. It's just nice to read DC books that are self-contained and not full of impenetrable continuity, really.

Ex Machina #22 (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
Harris breaks out a very different art style this issue, which is sort of an odd move in the middle of an arc, I think. Not that I don't like it - it makes the art look softer and more painterly, which is cool, although I might say right now that I preferred the more defined lines of Harris' older style. Still, always nice to see an artist pushing himself to try new things and improve. Story-wise, this issue continues to connect the dots among the various plot elements, and ends with another figurative (as well as literal) gutshot. As I said before, one of the book's most intriguing arcs yet.

The Exterminators #8 (Simon Oliver/Chris Samnee, DC/Vertigo)
This issue is titled "Interlude," and once again I'm struck by how much better this book is as a character drama than as a sci-fi piece about mutant bugs. There isn't a single bug in this entire issue, but it's a great exploration of the two women in Henry's life, fleshing out both Laura and Page and showing their interesting parallels and differences. It's also got a bit of development for Henry, who's been something of a cipher despite being the lead character. I'm disappointed in the title, because it implies that we'll be back to the bug stuff next issue, and I'd really love to see Oliver continuing with the character stuff and letting the bugs recede into the background.

Fallen Angel #7 (Peter David/J.K. Woodward, IDW)
The conclusion of the story of what happened to Lee right after she fell, and a continuing treatise on David's ideas about the insanity of God. Some brutal stuff, and interesting, but I miss Bete Noire and the more character-based stories. Telling the Angel's origin has given David plenty of chances to explore theology, which is cool, but I hope this little detour is over for now and we get back to the familiar supporting cast and some new antagonists for Lee.

Noble Causes #22 (Jay Faerber/Jon Bosco, Image)
Thankfully, the lesbians return in this issue, which proves that Faerber doesn't forget his subplots, just lets them simmer for months at a time. This issue focuses mostly on Zephyr and Rusty confronting Frost about his shady activities, which is one of the less compelling plot elements that's been pending for a while. I remain baffled by all the weird misogynistic subtext to the whole "Rae is a robot so we literally took her apart" plot, which Faerber is either unaware of or patiently waiting to bring to the forefront. I suspect it's the former, which makes me uneasy with the whole storyline. But, hey, lesbians, so I can't complain too much.

Y the Last Man #48 (Brian K. Vaughan/Goran Sudzuka, DC/Vertigo)
For the most part, this is yet another origin flashback, this time for Alter, the hard-nosed Israeli soldier who's only appeared in a handful of issues. Once again, it's somewhat engaging but not that essential, but at least it's framed by some interesting developments in the present-day plot. Vaughan shows another surprising yet completely logical aspect of the world he's created, as the revelation of Yorick's existence has sparked brutal fighting between various factions, all of whom wish to control him. I hadn't really considered the possibility before, but given where things seem to be headed and the limited number of issues left until the finale, it wouldn't surprise me now if the book ended with the last man dying off and leaving the world to the women.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Movies opening this week

The Descent (Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, dir. Neil Marshall)
I remember hearing a lot of hype among indie horror aficionados for Marshall's first movie, Dog Soldiers, which I found sort of disappointing, although it showed a lot of promise. This one is better, since Marshall obviously had a bigger budget to work with and was able to use it better, keeping the creatures (literally) in the dark much of the time and making the flashes he showed of them effective. Lionsgate is marketing this film as a companion to stuff like Saw and Hostel, which really isn't all that accurate, since this movie is much more about suspense and psychological terror than those were. And it is genuinely scary and unnerving - probably the best horror movie I've seen this year. Some of the female bonding stuff comes off as a little forced, like Marshall is trying too hard to prove he's capable of writing realistic women, and the subtext is not quite as rich as some people have made it out to be. But it's there, and it's interesting, and it's a good movie even putting all that aside. If you see it in theaters, make sure to also check out the original ending from the UK version, which was cut for American audiences because it was too bleak. Lame. Wide release

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Gary Cole, dir. Adam McKay)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I expected to like this more than I did, since I thought Anchorman was very funny and Ferrell is one of the few mainstream comedy stars who really appeals to me. And this is a fun movie, but it already feels like he and McKay are coasting a bit. I hope they can find a way to break out of their formula in future collaborations, because they've clearly got lots of talent. Wide release