Friday, September 29, 2006

Movies opening this week

Half Nelson (Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie, dir. Ryan Fleck)
Maybe it was just the deafening hype and acclaim for this movie, which is a favorite of the festival circuit so I've been hearing for months about how great it is, but I came away feeling disappointed. There are some very good performances here from Gosling and Epps, and the movie mostly sidesteps the cliches of inspirational inner-city teacher movies. But it still felt flat to me, a sort of meandering character study that didn't go much of anywhere. And the sometimes overly pointed political content was at odds with generally non-judgmental portraits of the main characters. I can't really put my finger on anything specifically wrong with this film, but I can't exactly point to anything spectacularly right about it, either. Opened limited Aug. 11; in Las Vegas this week

School for Scoundrels (Jon Heder, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacinda Barrett, dir. Todd Phillips)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I am convinced that Jon Heder's career will be over in no more than two years, and this movie only reinforces the notion that he can do little except play Napoleon Dynamite over and over again. A friend of mine said that he's not even an actor, which is probably sort of accurate. He was likely playing a variation on himself as Napoleon, and continues to play that same variation in every other movie he's in. Given that, though, it's probably smart that he's cramming in as many shitty Hollywood movies as possible while producers are still willing to cast (and pay) him. At least then he'll have some money to fall back on when the roles dry up. Billy Bob Thornton, on the other hand, has no excuse for being in this movie and recycling his character from Bad Santa and Bad News Bears. He's a great actor with incredible range, and this movie is way, way beneath him. Wide release

The Science of Sleep (Gael Garcia Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat, dir. Michel Gondry)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I had high standards for this film and I think it pretty well met them. It's not a classic like Eternal Sunshine, and is more about creating emotional impressions than conveying specific ideas, but it's still very effective at that, and demonstrates just how much of Eternal Sunshine's success was thanks to Gondry and not just the widely praised Charlie Kaufman screenplay. Gondry has been really good at portraying the sweetness and insanity of romance, a subject I hope he continues to pursue in future movies, since his films have been such a nice counterpoint to idealized Hollywood rom-coms. Opened limited Sept. 22; in Las Vegas this week

Thursday, September 28, 2006

TV premiering tonight: Ugly Betty

I'm sort of mystified at the positive reviews for this show, which struck me as a complete mess when I saw the pilot last month. It's a very awkward mix of dumb comedy and heavy-handed schmaltz, and I didn't think it worked at all. We're supposed to sympathize with the main character, but she looks like such a caricature that it's tough to believe her as a real person. The rest of the characters are similar cliches, except when the script calls for them to turn serious and sentimental and impart some important lesson about believing in yourself or something.

And this is a show all about lessons, hitting you over the head with simplistic morals about acceptance and sacrifice. It's not funny, it's not emotionally affecting, and it's not even good soap opera (sort of surprising given that it's based on a very popular telenovela). It has the same disingenuous theme as the awful The Devil Wears Prada: Women should never pursue careers if it takes them away from being available to their family and friends at every waking moment.

I love that there is a show with a realistic-looking woman as its main character (star America Ferrara), and I love the idea that she can be portrayed as smart, beautiful and undaunted by contemporary beauty standards. But this show undermines any of its own accomplishments by making Betty as much an object of ridicule as one of admiration, and by turning her story into either fodder for dumb comedy or overwrought melodrama. Either way, it's an insult. ABC, Thursdays, 8 p.m.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Weekend viewing

Alice (Woody Allen, 1990)
This reminded me a lot of The Purple Rose of Cairo, the last Allen movie I rented, which also starred Mia Farrow as an unfulfilled dreamer in a loveless marriage who encounters the supernatural as a way to break her out of her monotony, and show her what's really important in life, and who falls hard for an unattainable man but learns to be self-sufficient even if she can't be with the guy she loves. Actually, typing it all out makes them sound like they are practically the same movie, although the plot specifics are very different. Both movies are rather slight trifles, although I think I liked this one better because it eventually had a little weight to it after the overly flighty first half. And Farrow, of course, is great - although she'd obviously never be in another Allen film, she really hasn't done anything worthy of her talents since they broke up (their last movie together was Husbands and Wives, in 1992), and that's a shame.

In the Weeds (Michael Rauch, 2000)
That is the last time I listen to Richard Roeper. This is (I think) the second movie I've rented based on one of his video picks, and the second one that has been pretty worthless (the first was the Anne Hathaway-takes-off-her-top vehicle Havoc). Now, I know Roeper has never been a particularly serious critic, but he did recommend these movies in ways that made them sound like things I'd want to see. This one is a talky relationship drama about aimless people in their twenties, a.k.a. my favorite genre of movie. But it's so generic and meaningless; how can you have a movie that's all about people talking when they say absolutely nothing? Also features a terrible lead performance from Joshua Leonard and proof that Ellen Pompeo was quite annoying (although at least rather cute and not disturbingly thin) way before Grey's Anatomy.

TV premiering tonight: Help Me Help You

I suppose it was inevitable after the boom in single-camera, laugh-track-free sitcoms that some producer would come along and decide their lame, predictable traditional sitcom could be made hipper by shooting it in the single-camera style and getting rid of the laugh track. And that's pretty much what's happened here. This is, in almost all ways, a creaky, familiar, formulaic sitcom, with Ted Danson doing a slight variation on his standard persona and a bunch of one-note supporting characters. It's even got one of my least favorite actresses, Jane Kaczmarek, as Danson's ex-wife, doing her typical shrill, overbearing thing. I have no idea why this woman gets so much acclaim and all those award nominations.

The format wouldn't matter if the show were funny, which is of course what these producers fail to understand. It's not just the format that makes shows like My Name is Earl, The Office and Arrested Development work; it's the creativity in the writing and performances. So tired old devices like the psychiatrist who has more problems than his patients (which is the concept of this show) don't cut it, no matter how you shoot them. And it's not like they even make very many allowances for change - you can practically hear the pauses where the laugh track would be, only there aren't any laughs. ABC, Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m.

Monday, September 25, 2006

TV premiering tonight: Heroes & Runaway

Among comic book geeks, Heroes (NBC, Mondays, 9 p.m.) is far and away the most anticipated new show of the season, what with comics creators Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale working behind the scenes, and the superhero premise, and the structure indebted to comic book pacing. And I think, if nothing else, comic book fans will be pleased with this show. It takes the idea of superheroes very seriously (perhaps even, one could argue, a little too seriously), and has a suitably grandiose and intricate serialized story in mind (when the first episode begins with screen titles proclaiming it volume one, chapter one, you know they're shooting for epic). Some of the characters are a little broad, and the tone is sometimes overly somber without earning it, but overall I think this show has a lot of potential and, as I've said elsewhere, resembles in its best moments M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, which is one of my favorite movies.

And then there's Runaway (The CW, Mondays, 9 p.m.), a completely unnecessary drama from the CW that must have fans of Everwood up in arms - this is what they had to cancel something in order to air? It's an awkward hybrid of WB-style family drama and Prison Break-style serialized drama, and it doesn't really succeed at either. The family is on the run from the requisite wide-ranging conspiracy, but they settle down in a small town to start a new life, and the teens go to school and deal with typical teen angst TV stuff. I don't know how they're going to balance the two elements in the future, but I imagine the conspiracy will recede and it'll turn into just another mediocre melodrama, with the authorities closing in only during sweeps or the season finale. That is, of course, if it even lasts that long.

New comics 9/21

Astonishing X-Men #17 (Joss Whedon/John Cassaday, Marvel)
There's been a slowly building backlash against this title, and I would agree to a sort of general disappointment, but I still think it's very good, and I'm enjoying this arc more than the "Danger" story. Sure, there's more decompression than necessary, but things have built up methodically, and this will certainly read better in collected form. Whedon's also crafting a master narrative that started in issue one, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on the tangents and side stories that will hopefully all add up to one satisfying result. As always, Cassaday's art is wonderful, and there is a nice cliffhanger at the end that promises an exciting conclusion next issue.

Nextwave #8 (Warren Ellis/Stuart Immonen, Marvel)
Hey, character development! Even though a narrative caption sarcastically asserts that such things will never happen again, I think this book does need some sort of genuine emotional core to balance the humor and avoid repetition. This wasn't the greatest storyline, but it had its funny parts (the Mindless One with the "Livestrong" bracelet was hilarious), and I'm finally able to detect some interesting personality traits in the team members, which is important. Hopefully there'll be a stronger villain in the next issue, and more hints about the characters' emotional lives, as long as it doesn't distract from the absurdity.

Runaways #20 (Brian K. Vaughan/Mike Norton, Marvel)
With the news that Vaughan will be leaving this book (to be replaced by Joss Whedon), I'm now treasuring each issue a little more. I hope that Whedon will be able to keep up the standard of quality; I know he loves the characters, but as some have pointed out, his reverence for the X-Men seems to be holding him back from doing anything truly daring on Astonishing. One of the great things about Vaughan's work on this book is that he loves the characters but he's not afraid of messing with them, and in this issue it looks like Chase is really getting more and more evil. I'm more interested in where that's going than I am in the main story about the giant monster (although Norton draws a great giant monster), but I imagine both will come together in an unexpected way in the finale.

X-Factor #11 (Peter David/Renato Arlem & Roy Allen Martinez, Marvel)
David is slowly starting to convince me that Damian Tryp is a real menacing villain and not just a distraction from other storylines, and I like that he doesn't drag out the cliffhanger from last issue, instead resolving it quickly and moving on. Arlem's art is still sort of sketchy (there's one panel where Guido's face looks curiously flat), and I prefer Martinez's detailed work in the flashbacks, but Jose Villarrubia's colors tie it all together nicely, and provide a uniform look for a book that's gone through so many artists. (Also, not that it makes much of a difference, but someone at Marvel screwed up and repeated last month's letters page verbatim in this issue.)

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Peter David's Hulk

Although I'm a big fan of Peter David, and have read his full, lengthy runs on Supergirl, Spider-Man 2099 and Young Justice, among others, I got into comics and his work too late to pick up his landmark 12-year run on The Incredible Hulk, the work with which he made his name. Tracking down back issues, especially of a run that long, is costly and time-consuming, so I was really happy to see that Marvel decided to collect his entire run from beginning to end (or, at least from beginning until they lose interest). I picked up the first volume of Hulk Visionaries: Peter David at last year's San Diego Comic-Con, and volumes two and three at this year's Con. It's amazing to see how much David's writing style has evolved - the issues collected in these volumes were originally published in the late '80s, and the often stilted, overblown narrative style in the Stan Lee mode is in full effect. Comparing this stuff to, say, X-Factor or Fallen Angel, you almost wouldn't realize it's the same writer. Clearly one of the ways David has managed to keep getting work all these years is that he's been able to adapt better than a lot of his peers were.

As for the stories, they take a little while to get going, since David just jumped in following a previous writer, and didn't start a new "arc" like they do these days. I found the first volume a little pedestrian and bland, although it does feature some impressive early art from Todd McFarlane that reminds you how good he was when he actually drew comics for a living. There are a few David trademarks - most notably the issues that start with a focus on incidental characters who get caught up in the main story and then are never seen again - but things don't really get going until the later volumes.

The second volume features more McFarlane art and the culmination of the storyline that pits the Hulk against the Leader in an effort to prevent a gamma bomb from destroying a small town. David really gets into the psychology he'd become known for, with Bruce Banner feeling guilty about his creations getting used for such destructive purposes. And David also lets the hero lose and the story end on a down note - the town is destroyed, and while the Hulk only appears dead, almost all the town residents actually are. Pretty grim stuff.

The third volume deals mostly with a storyline I figured I'd really enjoy - the Hulk's time in Las Vegas as a casino security enforcer named Mr. Fixit. I was actually disappointed there wasn't more of this - David pretty quickly gets back to the superhero stuff, and takes a two-issue detour to the fantasy realm of Jarella's World, where some of his trademark political allegory shows up. The volume ends with the Hulk still in Vegas, though, so I hope there's some more of it in the next collection (which comes out at the end of November).

Volume three also demonstrates one of the difficulties of collecting stories from this era, since they were so often reliant on frequent crossovers. They have to throw in an issue of Web of Spider-Man (written, at least, by David himself) and one of Fantastic Four (written by Steve Englehart) so as not to break up the flow of the story. Thus, this volume feels a little slim and light on developments for the Hulk himself, who starts becoming more and more complex. It's got some really good art from Jeff Purves, whom I had never heard of before, and who apparently left comics after his Hulk run was over (although it looks like he did enough issues that he should fill volume four). His work is really expressive and exciting, and the way he draws the Hulk's face is really evocative and creative; he doesn't just go with the standard "Hulk smash!" grimace, but really gives you a sense of what's going on in the character's mind, which isn't easy with someone like that.

I've never been a huge fan of the Hulk as a character, so it takes a lot for me to care about his adventures, and I'm not yet bowled over by David's work. But it's great to read such a longform story and see how seeds are planted and then pay off, and how characters change and grow over time. I have no doubt that there are interesting and unexpected developments ahead, and as long as Marvel keeps putting these books out, I'll keep reading them. Now if only they would collect Spider-Man 2099, and DC would collect all of Supergirl and Young Justice.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Movies opening this week

All the King's Men (Jude Law, Sean Penn, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, dir. Steven Zaillian)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I found out at the last minute that I was going to be reviewing this, so I didn't have a chance to watch the original first, which is something that I normally try to do. So I can't offer a comparison (although I imagine the first one has to be better since this is such a misguided and leaden affair), but I can offer this story: In the middle of the film, I got up to go to the bathroom, where I ran into another local critic. "Man, how bad is this?" he said to me. I said it wasn't all that bad (it ended up getting worse), and he said that he loved the original and this was just butchering the story terribly. I went back into the theater, and he went home. And I maintain that this isn't a movie worth walking out in the middle of, but it's also not worth walking into in the first place. Wide release

Flyboys (James Franco, Martin Henderson, Abdul Salis, Jean Reno, dir. Tony Bill)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I might have been a little harsh on this in the star rating, since it's not aggressively bad so much as it is square and outdated, the kind of thing people might have had a certain nostalgic affection for were it made in 1942, but just comes off as awkward, simple-minded and grating in 2006. If there had been, say, 45 minutes less of it, I might have been a little kinder, but I got so annoyed with the schematic plotting and cardboard characters after over two hours that I came out of the movie with the desire to punish it. Hence the single star. Wide release

Jackass: Number Two (documentary, dir. Jeff Tremaine)
The only reason I saw this movie is that I knew that my radio pal Gonzo would want to talk about it, and I felt obligated to be prepared. I'm not the target audience for Jackass - I never watched the TV show, and I didn't see the first movie - and nothing I say about it will convince the people who are the target audience to stay away, so I'm not going to bother. But I was (perhaps naively) amazed at the sheer amount of human (and non-human) excretions on display in this film. I mean, I knew the Jackasses would be hurting themselves in sometimes creative ways, but I had no idea the steady stream (so to speak) of shit, piss, vomit, blood and even horse semen that would be on display. Combine that with the rampant homoeroticism of the franchise (this movie has to have more male nudity than any movie I've ever seen), and I guarantee you've got popular masturbatory fodder for a certain very kinky subset of viewers. Some of whom, I bet, are hidden among the ostensibly straight and even homophobic fanbase for these guys and their stupid human tricks. Wide release

Thursday, September 21, 2006

TV premiering tonight: Shark & Six Degrees

Like last night's premieres, these are both shows that I had moderately high hopes for that turned out to be disappointing. Although Shark (CBS, Thursdays, 10 p.m.) is yet another legal procedural, I did think that James Woods might be able to elevate it above the tired old formula. Unfortunately, all he does is come in and chew scenery, and his showy acting makes the show worse rather than better by highlighting how mundane every other aspect is. The writing is bland, the cases are unexciting, the other characters are stock types and even Woods' character's backstory is trite and ineffective. When he's blustering about like a maniac, it's sort of entertaining (especially if you're a Woods fan already), but the rest of the time it's dull and predictable, and Woods' one-note shtick, while amusing, wears thin pretty quickly.

I was slightly more interested in Six Degrees (ABC, Thursdays, 10 p.m.), which comes from J.J. Abrams' production company, and thus even more disappointed that it turned out to be so drippy and annoying. Even with people like Hope Davis and Campbell Scott in the cast, it's a dreary and pretentious show about the most ephemeral and wishy-washy of concepts, the idea that everyone is connected to everyone else by only six people. So there are a bunch of semi-related people doing semi-related things, but the ways they overlap are all contrived, and not one is interesting enough to carry a show on their own. I guess they are trying to appeal to viewer's of Grey's Anatomy, which I find overwrought and shrill (and am sadly in the minority among TV viewers), and maybe it will work, since there is plenty of relationship angst. But this show is humorless and unengaging, and I would expect better from Abrams, even if all he's doing is acting as an executive producer.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

TV premiering tonight: Jericho & Kidnapped

These are both shows that I was expecting and/or hoping to like more than I actually did. Jericho (CBS, Wednesdays, 8 p.m.) has the kind of sci-fi premise that would usually incline me to give a show a chance (it's about an isolated small town following a nuclear attack), and I probably would be watching it for at least a few weeks if it were, say, a summer show on Sci Fi. But with all the other interesting stuff on the air this season, the pilot just didn't grab me enough to get me to come back. Gerald McRaney gives a strong performance, and the concept has potential, but there are too many contrivances and cliched characters, and the show doesn't really bring anything new to the whole post-apocalyptic genre. Other reviews seem to indicate it's going to be more about the town residents than about the whole nuclear war concept, which makes me even less concerned about giving it a pass.

Kidnapped (NBC, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.) is yet another serialized show following one storyline over the course of a season, and it has a similar concept to Fox's lame Vanished. But it's created by Jason Smilovic, who was behind ABC's clever and underrated Karen Sisco a few years ago, and it's got an impressive cast that features Delroy Lindo, Jeremy Sisto, Dana Delany and Timothy Hutton, among others. I found the pilot mildly interesting and generally well-made, and certainly better than Vanished, but nothing that hooked me enough to feel like I had to tune in again. That's the problem with both of these shows: They set up sweeping mysteries that ultimately come off as rather mundane, and the characters that prop up the plot are just not complex or well-developed enough to make up for the storytelling deficiencies.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

TV premiering tonight: Smith

I'm posting this late once again, which is unfortunate, because I really want to encourage people to watch this show. The reviews have been disappointingly mixed, but based at least on the pilot I saw, this is the best new show of the season, a dark, complex and very well-acted drama that's neither formulaic nor overly gimmicky, and is a bit of an odd fit for CBS, home of safe, predictable procedurals and risk-averse sitcoms. Smith plays a lot like the criminally underrated FX series Thief, with a cast similarly full of wonderful, film-trained actors (including Ray Liotta, Virginia Madsen, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonny Lee Miller, Simon Baker and Amy Smart) and sharply cinematic production values. It has echoes of Michael Mann, whose work I of course adore, and plays like a sophisticated feature film.

It's too bad that people may still be soured on this sort of show thanks to NBC's lame Heist, but, like Thief, this show understands that criminals are tortured and often downright evil people, and doesn't shy away from depicting some of their nastier acts while also depicting them as full human beings. As with many great pilots that tell satisfying stories, this show may have a hard time keeping up its quality and narrative urgency over time. But at the moment it's so self-assured that I'm not worried about that; I'm far more worried that people won't take a chance on it and, like Thief, it'll end up forgotten and pulled off the air after only a handful of episodes. Great shows deserve a much better fate. CBS, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.

Monday, September 18, 2006

TV premiering tonight: The Class & Studio 60

[I know, a little late. But with the fall season starting in earnest this week, it's getting tough to keep up. If you can't get enough of my opinions on the new TV season, check out my Las Vegas Weekly fall preview (scroll down), my takes on Fox and NBC in Media Life Magazine (somewhat mangled by the editor), and my chat with Steve Bornfeld on a myriad of TV topics, including new fall shows.]

Apparently The Class (CBS, Mondays, 8 p.m.) has been reworked a bit since the pilot I saw, but I can't imagine that a few tweaks here or there could make it anything more than the latest attempt by one of the creators of Friends (in this case David Crane) to replicate the success of that show (this has given us such TV classics as Jesse and Related). It's a little odd for CBS, whose sitcoms tend to be a bit more family-oriented, but even with its focus on younger people this show is still dull and predictable, as well as sometimes irritating and often very forced. It certainly doesn't have any of the comfortable charm of Friends (which in its evolution into a TV behemoth is actually now sort of underrated), although it's not nearly as bad as some of this season's other new sitcoms, and it could do perfectly well alongside the other bland, familiar comedies on CBS.

I don't know what I could say about Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC, Mondays, 10 p.m.) that hasn't already been said by critics and hype-mongers alike, so I'll just say that this one lives up to its billing. If you're a Sorkin fan, you'll love it, as it does exactly what Sorkin does best, stylized banter and endearing self-importance intact. It's got a great cast to deliver Sorkin's smart writing, including Matthew Perry, surprisingly effective as a dramatic actor; Bradley Whitford, who really kept The West Wing going; Steven Weber, also a surprisingly effective dramatic actor; and Amanda Peet, who's easily the best thing on the show and give such an assured, powerful performance that it's like you've never even seen her act before. I don't want to kill this show with hyperbole, because others have already nearly done it for me. Trust me, just watch it.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

New comics 9/13

Ex Machina #23 (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
Until now, the nature and origins of Mitchell's powers have been sort of an afterthought behind the political drama, but this issue Vaughan offers some tantalizing and creepy glances into the entities that gave Mitchell his powers, and a very effective and unexpected cliffhanger. Plus all the typical political drama stuff and another gruesome scene with the firefighter-impersonating serial killer. This continues to be the richest and most intriguing arc to date.

Fables #53 (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham, DC/Vertigo)
It's amazing to me how Willingham is consistently able to take these often-sanitized fairy-tale characters and make them genuinely menacing and scary. This storyline promises to be as epic and significant as "March of the Wooden Soldiers," which seemed like the definitive word on the conflict with the Adversary at the time. Willingham is able to go back to that well fairly soon without at all seeming like he's repeating himself. As always, Buckingham's art brings it all to life, especially his alluring and delightfully evil portrayal of the Snow Queen. This month's back-up, with art by Joshua Middleton, seems even more inconsequential than the last, a little sidebar to the main story based on a lame joke. But who knows, it may turn out to be important somewhere down the road.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Movies opening this week

The Black Dahlia (Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Scarlett Johansson, Mia Kirshner, dir. Brian De Palma)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I was really disappointed to come out of the press screening of this film to discover that I was pretty much the only person there who had liked it (and I liked it a lot). I've been even more disappointed to watch its Rotten Tomatoes score plummet (to a sad 31 percent at the moment) this week as more negative reviews have piled on. This is one of my favorite movies of the year, a lush, rich and exciting stylistic exercise that's, first of all, really entertaining, and, secondly, a great celebration of the allure and power of cinematic history and images. Thankfully some of my favorite critics, including my friend Jeannette Catsoulis, my sometime-colleague Jeff Anderson, NY Press critic and blogger Matt Zoller Seitz and, of course, the De Palma-obsessed guys at Slant, liked it as much as or more than I did, which makes me feel validated. If you expect a serious, sober thriller, look elsewhere, but for one of the most sensuous, visceral and luxurious film experiences of the year, give this movie a chance. Wide release

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Weekend viewing

Actually last weekend's viewing, that's how behind I am in posting.

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)
A couple of months ago, we watched Wilder's Sunset Boulevard in my film-nerd discussion group, and I liked it but felt perhaps a little let down given its reputation. Maybe my expectations for this one were tempered a bit, then, but I really enjoyed it. It's your basic pitch-black noir, but it's got great, snappy dialogue and really effective performances. Fred MacMurray is great as the tortured hero, and he's got more personality than many bland 1940s leading men. Edward G. Robinson provides sharp comedy, and Barbara Stanwyck is an excellent femme fatale. I love the darkness of this story and the way it maintains its sense of bitter irony throughout.

The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)
This one, however, did not work for me. Welles sports this completely ridiculous Irish accent, and the noir plot is muddled with some silly courtroom drama and a general lack of empathy (forget likeability) for any of the characters. Glenn Anders gives a thoroughly bizarre performance as a fey lawyer who's part of the scheme to frame Welles' character, but the absurdity mixes awkwardly with the serious noir tone. Welles' post-Citizen Kane career is littered with films whose final cuts were taken away from him, and this is no exception, so maybe his original 155-minute cut is a better film. The actual film does at least have one impressive element, which is an elaborate finale in a funhouse that is a surreal visual wonder. Allegedly much of that sequence was cut, but unless it made up the entire movie, I'm not sure it would have made that much of a difference.

TV premiering tonight: Men in Trees

Even the normally sedate and bland Amy Amatangelo is offended by this odious new show, one of two new ABC dramedies dripping with condescending sexism. This is actually the collision of several trite, insulting concepts, combining the "irony" of the relationships expert whose personal life is a mess with the big city go-getter who ends up "trapped" in a small town. Thus main character Marin Frist, played rather effectively given the atrocious material by Anne Heche, is stuck learning lessons about how to let go of her pre-conceived notions about love and about how to slow down and appreciate the simple things in life. None of the supposedly sage advice offered to Marin (a best-selling self-help author) is any less trite or useless than the supposedly wrong-headed advice she's been foolishly peddling herself, and all it amounts to is a collection of gender stereotypes foisted off as wisdom.

Never mind the painful contrivances that force Marin to end up stuck in the tiny Alaska town in the first place, or the introduction of TV's absolute worst, most overused device, the mismatched, "will they or won't they?" couple. It's to Heche's credit that she somehow makes her character almost likeable despite all of her stupid decisions (which include spontaneously moving to a tiny town full of annoyingly cheerful and "wise" folks). This show manages to insult women who want to be independent, men who aren't out working the land, people who actually like big cities, and small-town dwellers who don't live stuck in the past all in the course of its first episode, while simultaneously failing to be funny and employing nearly every cliche in the book. That's got to be some kind of record. ABC, sneak preview tonight, 10 p.m.; airs regularly Fridays, 9 p.m.

Monday, September 11, 2006

New comics 9/7

I'm short on time this week, so I'm sticking to the highlights.

The Cross Bronx #1 (Michael Avon Oeming with Ivan Brandon, Image)
There was a lot of pre-release hype on this book, and I like Oeming's art on Powers (although I haven't read anything he's written), so it seemed worth a look. And it's okay, but it didn't really grab me enough to want to read the rest of the mini-series. Brandon was the co-creator of the rather bland NYC Mech, and here what we've got is a semi-interesting mystery story with some rather stock characters, including the burnout cop who can't talk to his wife and is overwhelmed by the misery he deals with on the job. The plotting is a little choppy, and what's meant to be mysterious came off to me mostly as confusing. I'm not sure if they're going for a straight crime angle or something more supernatural, but neither one struck me as particularly worthwhile anyway.

X-Men: Phoenix - Warsong #1 (Greg Pak/Tyler Kirkham, Marvel)
Pak's Phoenix mini-series Endsong started out really strongly and then sort of petered out, but I think he's got a good handle on how to tell new stories about the X-Men that are rooted in past continuity, and here he does a good job forwarding the mythology of the Phoenix Force without resurrecting Jean Grey. He's taking some of the characters from Grant Morrison's New X-Men and fleshing them out, and really this is a story about the Stepford Cuckoos and, presumably, Quentin Quire, as much as at is about the main X-Men. Since I haven't been reading the core X-books in a while, it's nice to get a strong story with all the familiar characters, but this also builds on more recent developments, which is important to keep the franchise from stagnating. Kirkham's art is a little too cartoony and stiff, very much in the Top Cow house style, and all the female characters look like 14-year-old girls (I realize that some of them actually are, but not all of them). I maybe even preferred Greg Land's stiff, photo-realistic art on Endsong, but I suppose this is acceptable.

Also out this week: Agents of Atlas #2, which continues Jeff Parker's fun romp through obscure Marvel continuity and turns explaining said continuity into a solid basis for storytelling; The All-New Atom #3, which again strikes a balance between Grant Morrison-style weirdness and straightforward superheroics, and remains interesting if not spectacular; The Exterminators #9, which returns to the bug storyline with mixed results, although with plenty of offbeat humor along the way; Noble Causes #23, which features one really awful panel by Jon Bosco that makes it look like Liz's face has come off - the more I see of it, the more I really dislike the guy's art overall; Savage Dragon #128, pointlessly featuring Mark Millar's Wanted characters and way too many alternate-universe versions of various people; and Y the Last Man #49, starting off a new story arc with some great character development, a slam-bang cliffhanger and the triumphant return of regular penciler Pia Guerra.

Whew. What a crowded week to run out of time to comment.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Movies opening this week

Factotum (Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor, Marisa Tomei, dir. Bent Hamer)
This movie, like Hamer's last film, Kitchen Stories, is just too low-key for its own good. Shot rather flatly on city streets that look like they've been deserted, with a barely-there lead performance from Dillon, this is a movie that always seems just on the verge of giving up. The humor is dry and stillborn, although it does manage a smirk or two. I'm not a Bukowski fan, so I don't know if this captures the spirit of his work accurately and I just can't appreciate it, but other than a spark here or there, I thought it was the most boring movie about a self-destructive alcoholic I've ever seen. Opened limited Aug. 25; in Las Vegas this week

Hollywoodland (Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, dir. Allen Coulter)
I was really frustrated with this movie, because it's got an interesting true story at its core, but it seems like the producers must have felt it wasn't interesting enough, so they tacked on all this faux-noir, LA Confidential-aping bullshit that isn't interesting at all. The life of George Reeves, who played Superman on TV in the 1950s and was never able to transcend typecasting, and ultimately (most likely) killed himself, is a fascinating Hollywood tale, especially given his relationship with his sugar mama, the wife of a powerful studio exec, and his contempt for playing Superman. Whenever the movie follows his life, it's a good, meaty biopic, and Affleck tweaks his own image nicely in a strong performance as Reeves. But the detective stuff with Brody (playing a character created for the film) is completely second-rate, and the efforts to make his life parallel with Reeves' come off as forced. Eventually any momentum just peters out, and the film doesn't even make any bold assertions in the end about how Reeves died. A total missed opportunity. Wide release

Thursday, September 07, 2006

TV premiering tonight: 'Til Death & Happy Hour

And so we come to the nadir of Fox's abysmal slate of new shows, which they've managed to get on the air before any of the other networks and which they might as well cancel just as quickly. While all three of the ho-hum dramas have gotten decent but unspectacular ratings, I can't imagine tonight's two sitcoms, 'Til Death (Thursdays, 8 p.m.) and Happy Hour (Thursdays, 8:30 p.m.) will even do that well, and certainly once they're up against My Name is Earl and The Office (not to mention Survivor), they don't stand a chance. I'll be happy when Death, which I think is the worst new show on any network this season, dies, as it's a crass, idiotic, loud, sexist, annoying and unfunny show that might actually have caused me physical pain as I watched it. I actually like Brad Garrett and think he could carry a show, but he's stuck with an Al Bundy-esque role here that does not suit him at all. The jokes are as old as time, and repeated over and over even within just the first episode. If you find the idea that men like pool tables and women like dinner parties revolutionary and hilarious, this is the show for you.

Happy Hour is better only by being slightly less horrid, but it's still completely worthless. It's the kind of show that looks like it was created by marketing executives who have no idea what young people think is cool, and thus throw in all their own misguided ideas of "hip." And it features possibly the worst performance of the new season from the unbelievably annoying Beth Lacke, who yells all of her lines in this squeaky voice that makes me want to strangle her. It's like an even more grating version of Megan Mullally on Will & Grace, and you know what a picture of restraint she was. I will perhaps never get the memory of Lacke saying "I saw your balls" (one of the pilot's "hilarious" running gags) out of my mind.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

TV premiering tonight: Standoff

Here we go with the final one-word drama of the fall season from Fox, and this one is just as bland as the other two (Vanished, Justice). It's still a variation on the police procedural, focusing this time on hostage negotiators. As networks look closer into more niches for new variations on the procedural format, they're really narrowing their options narratively as to what kinds of stories they can tell. If you're just focusing on police officers, they can solve all kinds of cases and go all sorts of places, but as we've narrowed things from forensics investigators (the CSI franchise) to medical examiners (Crossing Jordan) to forensic anthropologists (Bones) and now to hostage negotiators, the characters at the center of the show become more and more marginal to the actual cases, and writers either have to abandon realism or risk becoming repetitive with the kinds of stories they can tell (not that these shows aren't repetitive already).

I can't say from just the pilot whether that's the case here, but it does seem like a very narrow premise. The producers try to expand on that by focusing on the banter-y sexual relationship between the two main characters, a pair of hostage negotiators. But their chemistry is off, and that premise has just as little room for development as does the procedural aspect. Already in the first episode they're told by their superior to end their relationship and end up sneaking around behind her back, and there are only so many "let's hope we don't get caught" scenarios to explore. Like the other Fox dramas, not terrible, and possibly a modest ratings success, but certainly far from anything worth seeking out. Fox, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.

Monday, September 04, 2006

New comics 8/30

American Virgin #6 (Steven T. Seagle/Becky Cloonan, DC/Vertigo)
Although I found this book strikingly different and unpredictable at first, at this point it's just starting to seem meandering and rootless, and it's never a good sign when the cover is more exciting than the contents. I still like that Seagle is striking out in new territory, and that he respects the religion of his main character without seeming preachy or cartoonish, but now in the second part of the second arc, I still have no idea what this book is supposed to be about, and I'm starting to lose my patience a little.

The Boys #2 (Garth Ennis/Darick Robertson, DC/Wildstorm)
This is exactly what appeared to be based on the first issue two weeks ago, and thus I'm not going to bother with it anymore. As much as I'd like to check out Darick Robertson's art on a regular basis again, the writing is just a bunch of vulgar sex jokes and ultraviolence with no character development and nothing new or interesting to say. Next issue promises some actual action, but I can already imagine Ennis' tired anti-superhero tirades, and they're not original or entertaining, so I'm checking out.

Cable & Deadpool #31 (Fabian Nicieza/Staz Johnson, Marvel)
This Civil War crossover is tied far more closely to the main story than the others I've read, and consequently it's a little less interesting to me since I'm not reading the core series. Nicieza does his best to throw in some amusing Deadpool moments, but his entire fight scene with the renegade heroes feels like filler. Cable is a better fit for the crossover, given his philosophies on government, but I still can't help but feeling this is a meaningless diversion keeping the book away from its main storylines. Johnson becomes the first artist to draw two issues in a row in quite some time, and his art is perfectly fine, if a little rough sometimes. I may not love it, but I'd just be happy to have some artistic consistency on this book at some point.

Civil War: Young Avengers & Runaways #2 (Zeb Wells/Stefano Caselli, Marvel)
Despite bearing the name of the crossover in its title, this book actually ties a lot less closely to Civil War than Cable & Deadpool does. It really just uses it as a springboard to bring the two titular teams together for what is, I am sad to say, a thoroughly uninspired team-up. After having the requisite fight last issue, the two teams join forces in the face of an outside antagonist (sound familiar?). In this case, it's the Marvel Boy from Grant Morrison's mini-series of a few years back, and Wells totally mishandles him, making a weird and unique character into just another psychotic villain. Really, after the fun Wells brought to his New Warriors mini, he seemed like the perfect choice for this one, but other than finding some neat bits of continuity between the teams, he's been nothing but a pale imitation of the books' original writers, and Caselli's art is rather ugly, to boot, with too many characters who look alike. Since I really like these characters and I already bought half the series, I'll keep reading, but I don't expect much.

Fallen Angel #8 (Peter David/J.K. Woodward, IDW)
It looks like Woodward has completely given up on painting and gone with pencils and inks in his art for the foreseeable future, but since he does the colors as well the look is similar; unfortunately I'm still not that crazy about his work, although after eight issues it's tolerable. David gets us back to the present and sets things in motion again this issue, bringing back Sachs and Violens and highlighting the supporting cast in an issue in which the Angel herself doesn't even appear. I still don't quite understand how 18 years have passed and only certain characters have aged (shouldn't S&V at least be middle-aged by now?), but I'm glad to see things moving forward and I like the way this issue showcases what a rich cast of characters David has developed.

She-Hulk #11 (Dan Slott/Rick Burchett, Marvel)
Slott finally wraps up the mind-control storyline that's been going on way too long, but I'm sure we'll be seeing repercussions from it for a while, which is fine with me. And he finally makes John Jameson into an interesting character rather than a bland placeholder boyfriend for She-Hulk, which is also nice. Burchett's art is a great fit for this book, and I really hope he's sticking around for more than a couple of issues.

X-Factor #10 (Peter David/Renato Arlem & Roy Allen Martinez, Marvel)
Here's another book with huge problems with art consistency. At least the ill-suited Dennis Calero looks to be out, and Pablo Raimondi, who did great work on the Madrox mini-series that launched this book, will take over as of issue 13 (I have no idea who fills in until then). Martinez does an excellent job on a flashback sequence this issue, and I'd be happy to see more work from him. Arlem's art is a little rougher, but still palatable. David writes an excellent cliffhanger in this issue and an amusing French farce-esque bedroom sequence, although he still can't make me care about Damien Tryp, even with that whole flashback segment.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Movies opening this week

Crank (Jason Statham, Amy Smart, Jose Pablo Cantillo, dir. Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor)
It's interesting to me that we're getting to the point with all these movies that are not screened for critics that eventually some of them will start to get good reviews anyway. In the past, the movies held from review have been so bad that the people who bother to review them at all are almost guaranteed to hate them. These movies usually have ratings under 15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (Zoom, with Tim Allen, which came out a few weeks ago, has a zero percent rating). But starting with Snakes on a Plane, which is currently at 69 percent, and now with Crank, which at the moment has a 60 percent rating, studios are holding back so many movies that some of them are bound to actually turn out to be pretty good; they're overestimating how much critics might hate anything that's a B-level genre film or not highbrow and arty. Not that this movie has gotten universal praise, but more critics than not, it seems, did like it, and I agree that it was sort of perversely entertaining.

My friend who saw it with me loved it and said it was one of his top 10 movies of the year, and I swear that every 10 minutes he kept turning to me and saying, "Best movie ever!" I certainly would not go that far, but in its unbelievable, unapologetic over-the-topness, this movie is endearingly stupid, and the hyperkinetic visual style is put to far better use than, say, by Tony Scott in the annoying Man on Fire and Domino. The directors have said they wanted to make a live-action video game, and that's pretty much what this is, with nothing in the way of character development or emotional weight. But in that way it's better than something like The Transporter (also with Statham), which makes pretensions to being serious that only highlight how stupid it is. This movie knows how stupid it is, and runs with it. The energy eventually flags, and it probably would have been better as a 40-minute short film, and some of the casual sexism (especially an uncomfortably rape-like sex scene) made me a little uneasy, but overall this is far more enjoyable than anyone would expect. Wide release

The Illusionist (Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, dir. Neil Burger)
This has been getting good reviews, and it looked like something I would like, but even though the concept is interesting I felt like the execution fell sort of flat. Norton and Giamatti are excellent actors, but Burger saddles them with these really fake-sounding pseudo-Austrian accents, and I found it really distracting. I hate the use of accents in movies like this, like it achieves some sort of verisimilitude. They're already not speaking German, so why not just let them use their normal accents? It's not like people in turn-of-the-century Vienna were walking around speaking English to each other in Austrian accents, anyway. Beyond that, the drama was so staid and stilted that none of the stuff that should have been exciting ever came off that way. And, as Jeff Anderson pointed out in his Las Vegas Weekly review, it's hard to convince the audience that a character is a master illusionist if all his tricks are portrayed in the movie with CGI. I will say that I was pleasantly surprised at Jessica Biel's dramatic skills, though. Opened limited Aug. 18; in Las Vegas this week

The Quiet (Elisha Cuthbert, Camilla Belle, Martin Donovan, Edie Falco, dir. Jamie Babbit)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I think nearly everyone is missing the insane camp appeal of this movie, which has gotten dismal reviews and has done very poorly at the box office even in its limited release. Even the few positive reviewers seem to think it's some dark drama, but I was laughing the entire time, even (especially) at the incest scenes and when the characters talk about their inner desires. I could definitely see this movie developing a cult following; after seeing my review, a reader from New York sent me some YouTube parodies she and her friends did, and they've clearly got the right approach. Now if only someone would set up some midnight screenings. Opened limited Aug. 25; in Las Vegas this week

Trust the Man (Julianne Moore, David Duchovny, Billy Crudup, Maggie Gyllenhaal, dir. Bart Freundlich)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I suppose it's lucky for Bart Freundlich that he's married to Julianne Moore, because otherwise he'd never get all these well-known, talented actors to be in his lame rom-com, or even get the chance to make it at all. You'd think someone with Moore's talent might marry someone a little more original, or at least have the sense to steer him in the direction of a less embarrassing career choice. Opened limited Aug. 18; in Las Vegas this week