Monday, October 30, 2006

The desperation of Stephen King

When I was on vacation a couple of months ago, I finally got around to watching the screeners TNT had sent of the mini-series Nightmares & Dreamscapes, an eight-episode anthology, with each episode adapted from a Stephen King short story. I had planned to also watch the ABC King TV movie Desperation, which I recorded way back in March, and write up something on the declining quality of King TV adaptations (I even came up with a clever title, as you can see above). Well, things came up, as things do, and when I finally got around to popping in my tape of Desperation (yes, I write about TV for a living and still don't own a DVR), I discovered that at some point since recording it, I must have decided that I wasn't going to watch it after all and taped over it.

So I don't have any clever comparisons and contrasts to offer about the two most recent King TV productions, but I think that Nightmares & Dreamscapes itself offers a pretty handy distillation of what's wrong with King TV adaptations within its eight episodes. First of all, I like the anthology format and the idea that each short story can be adapted, essentially, into its own short film. Like Showtime's Masters of Horror series, N&D in its best moments proved that the 50-minute short can be an ideal venue for telling a complete story. King's written dozens of short stories, and even though I didn't love N&D by a long shot, I'd definitely be pleased to see TNT do another season.

But the first problem, here and elsewhere, is that almost all of King's best material has been adapted already, either for TV or film. And not only have most of his novels been brought to the screen, but a good number of his short stories, too (made into features, most of them, which is generally a bad idea). A lot of the source material for N&D is nearly as forgettable as the episodes themselves, and stretching silly conceits like "Autopsy Room Four" and "Battleground" into full TV episodes only highlights the initial thinness of their premises (although director Brian Henson does get credit for turning "Battleground" into an impressive bit of dialogue-free filmmaking). This dearth of material has also led to things like the new TV-movie versions of The Shining, Carrie and 'Salem's Lot.

Even when the stories are good, the TV producers often miss the point, robbing them of their creepiness via cheesy effects or stilted acting, or being too timid to deviate from the so-called master's source material. This is another problem - while King is often hands-off on feature-film versions of his material, he tends to have more involvement in TV adaptations, and thus many of the flaws in his prose get amplified in the transition to TV, where his homey turns of phrase and heart-on-their-sleeves characters don't necessarily play as smoothly as they do on the page. The original King teleplay Rose Red from a few years ago was excruciatingly monotonous and on-the-nose, something that might have worked in a novel (although I doubt it) but was tedious and false on-screen.

My favorite N&D episodes - the excellent "The End of the Whole Mess" and the decent "Umney's Last Case," saved by a great William H. Macy performance, work on their own as films, deviating enough from the short stories to carve out their own identities, but staying true to the core of what King was trying to convey. Too often, though, it seems like these TV productions just want to slap the King name on something to get people's attention, and don't care much about whether the source material was any good or whether they have anything to add by bringing it to TV (I thought Desperation was one of King's worst novels, and I can't imagine a TV adaptation being any better).

I'm in the midst of reading King's new novel, Lisey's Story, for a review in Las Vegas Weekly, and I'm already imagining it being made into a mediocre, overlong mini-series. I sort of wish that King would just learn to say no to these things, since he obviously doesn't need the money and so many uninspired TV movies (and, to be fair, many bad feature films as well) just dilute his generally well-regarded brand name. But King seems to be, yes, desperate for recognition and perhaps have some sort of inferiority complex that drives him to, no matter how many bestsellers he writes, continue to push these TV adaptations until he's as successful and well-regarded as a TV writer as he is as a novelist, which, of course, is never going to happen.

New comics 10/25

Jack of Fables #4 (Bill Willingham & Matthew Sturges/Tony Akins, DC/Vertigo)
I think this is the first issue to really capture the tone of the main series, with clever banter, exciting action and fresh takes on familiar characters. I like that the story is moving forward, and Jack isn't going to be languishing in the prison camp. I hope that if he gets out and heads on the road he takes some of this supporting cast with him, since most of them are honestly more interesting than he is. Akins shines in this issue with some inventive character designs and well-paced storytelling.

Nextwave #9 (Warren Ellis/Stuart Immonen, Marvel)
I was actually sort of relieved to read last week of this book's cancellation after issue 12, since I felt like the premise was wearing thin, but in this issue Ellis manages to do something new, creating a whole alternate superhero history out of parody characters from Not Brand Echh and even making Forbush Man interesting and sort of menacing. Forbush Man! Is there nothing this guy can't do? Not to mention an exchange that finally helps differentiate Tabitha from Elsa, and some sharp humor after the last few issues have been lagging. I still think it's best for the book to go out while it's still fresh, but this issue reminded me that I will miss it when it's gone.

Planetary #26 (Warren Ellis/John Cassaday, DC/Wildstorm)
I think I remember reading somewhere that there is actually one more issue after this one, a sort of epilogue, but this definitely wraps up all of the plot threads and serves as a pretty definitive ending for the series. I realize that as every issue comes out I say the same thing, that it was a decent read but I don't remember enough of the plot to say more than that, and I'll have to go back and read the series as a whole someday. That's still true, but as the series wraps up it occurs to me that in the early days I wouldn't have had to remember what happened in the previous issue to understand each installment, and Ellis got away from the self-contained genre exercises to tell a long conspiracy storyline that turned out to be less than fascinating. It's still a good story, and Cassaday's art is wonderful as always, but for the first time this issue, as everything came to an allegedly momentous climax, I realized how little there is to this story. Maybe I'll feel differently reading it all at once, but for now I feel like all the waiting and delaying should have added up to something more significant.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Movies opening this week

Catch a Fire (Derek Luke, Tim Robbins, Bonnie Henna, dir. Phillip Noyce)
I suppose it's admirable that, after years of helming slick Hollywood thrillers, Noyce has returned to his roots and is making socially conscious, politically oriented films. But I thought Rabbit Proof Fence was one of the most boring movies I'd ever seen, and this is only slightly more exciting. At least Noyce puts his thriller experience to use here, and there are a few tense and exciting moments, but this is mostly connect-the-dots filmmaking with a political message that's rather obvious. Kudos to Noyce for letting Robbins inject a little sympathy into his ruthless South African terrorist-hunter character, but other than that there's very little sense of who these characters are as people beyond mouthpieces for ideas we've heard many times before. Wide release

The Queen (Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, dir. Stephen Frears)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Despite the positive reviews and raves about Mirren's performance, I expected a rather dry drawing-room drama from this film, and it turned out to be fascinating and complex, taking off from a seemingly mundane sticking point (the conflict between Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II over her response to Princess Diana's death) to tell a story about the meaning of the monarchy in England and the people who embody it. A really worthwhile film, and one you should check out even if you think it looks boring. Opened limited Oct. 6; in Las Vegas this week

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (Ken Takakura, Lin Qiu, Li Jiamin, dir. Zhang Yimou)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I haven't seen Zhang's acclaimed earlier films, dramas like Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, so I know him only from his martial-arts movies (Hero, House of Flying Daggers). This movie has a certain visual poetry to it as well, although much more understated, but it's rather slight and overly sentimental. I should probably go back and see those older movies for a better perspective, but I have a feeling that they're probably more effective and affecting than this one is. Opened limited Sept. 1; in Las Vegas this week

Saw III (Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Angus MacFadyen, Bahar Soomekh, dir. Darren Lynn Bousman)
I think the thing that annoys me most about the Saw franchise is how self-righteous Jigsaw (the killer) is. He's not just some crazy dude who wants to kill people, like Jason or Michael Myers. He's not gleefully sadistic and cracking jokes like Freddy Krueger or Chucky. No, Jigsaw is teaching people lessons. He's basically like some elitist prick activist who looks down on people who don't donate enough money to charity, enacting his superior condescension via gruesome death traps. I mean, yes, this is a bad movie that substitutes increased grossness for actual scares, completely forgets to include any sort of interesting mystery (something that at least the first two movies had) and features some really bad acting, but to me that is almost secondary to the ever-increasing importance of Jigsaw (he really only appeared at the very end of the first movie, since his existence was the big twist) and his smug moralizing. And you know that an important element of any horror movie is sympathizing with the villain, and I think these movies are more and more making a statement that maybe people who aren't following some high-minded, prudish moral code deserve to be creatively eviscerated. Or who knows, maybe I'm reading too much into it. Wide release

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Weekend viewing

Akeelah and the Bee (Doug Atchison, 2006)
In going through the 2006 releases I missed and wanted to catch up on before the end of the year, this was the only mainstream Hollywood movie that interested me. I love spelling bees, and I did enjoy spelling along with some of the characters in this movie during the bees, but this is not exactly a great movie. It's admirable for the way it encourages hard work and individualism and promotes spelling as a cool and worthwhile activity, but plot-wise it follows the inspirational sports-movie formula so closely that it almost doesn't matter what competitive activity Akeelah is engaging in. She could've been a tennis player or an ice skater or a karate kid and all the plot elements would have been exactly the same - the snarlingly mean rival who turns out to be a big softie; the training montages set to motivational music (I counted three of these); the disapproving parent who just doesn't understand the activity; the stoic mentor with a secret; and so on. It wasn't poorly done, and it was sort of endearing, but it wasn't the spelling masterpiece I was hoping for.

Monday, October 23, 2006

New comics 10/18

Cable & Deadpool #33 (Fabian Nicieza/Reilly Brown, Marvel)
After the Civil War crossover, the book gets back to its regular business, dealing with Cable's increasingly large empire (including Providence and Rumekistan) and putting its two main characters squarely at odds with each other. We also get the return of Domino and G.W. Bridge, and it's nice to have so many old Cable supporting characters around. Deadpool remains amusing as ever, and the philosophizing isn't as oppressive as it got in the last few issues. Brown, who I believe is the new regular artist, does decent but unexceptional work, with only the occasional lapse into the overly cartoony that undermines the intensity of the action.

Desolation Jones #7 (Warren Ellis/Danijel Zezelj, DC/Wildstorm)
I'm just pleased that this issue came out at all, since after issue six it looked like the series was dead, given the months-long delays, the departure of original artist J.H. Williams III, and Ellis' commitments to various other projects. But it's here, and it looks like the promising start to a new arc that has connections to Jones' past. Of course, it's another six-parter, so it could get as hopelessly convoluted as the last one, but for now it's relatively straightforward and interesting. Zezelj's artwork is a definite departure from Williams', more loose and sketchy and less design-oriented, but it works, and Jose Villarrubia is still on colors, using lots of monochrome color schemes with occasional shocks of red to give the visuals a surreal, trippy feel that goes with the main character's mental state. Overall, a welcome return.

The Exterminators #10 (Simon Oliver/Tony Moore, DC/Vertigo)
Sometimes I wonder, like I've done with American Virgin, if this book is actually going anywhere. Ten issues in, I'm still not sure if it's meant to be a grown-up drama about an ex-con exterminator and his friends and family, a sci-fi book about genetically modified cockroaches, or a weird horror story about a reincarnated bug god. My guess is all three, but sometimes trying to do so many things at once seems to be a little trying for Oliver. Case in point: this issue, which is the conclusion to the "Insurgency" arc but really resolves nothing and just makes everything that's going on a little more vague. I really like the interpersonal drama in this book (the issue focused on Henry's two girlfriends was excellent), but all the extraneous stuff is a little too cryptic and distracting.

Noble Causes #24 (Jay Faerber/Jon Bosco, Image)
We finally get a nice twist that actually feels surprising and satisfying; it's been too long since this book's had one of those, and it used to be full of them. It also ends with a cool little cliffhanger, and is one of the more satisfying recent issues, although I still worry that Faerber has so many subplots going that he can't possibly address them all satisfactorily in even a year's worth of issues. Also, I still can't stand Bosco's art, which remains amateurish and ugly, with every character having a weird, flat-looking face.

Runaways #21 (Brian K. Vaughan/Mike Norton, Marvel)
The defeat of the giant monster is a little anticlimactic, although it does bring the characters together nicely. What's more interesting is Chase's continued flirtation with the dark side, and the potential for real nastiness that Vaughan sets up at the end. This arc has been sort of underwhelming, so I hope that Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona will go out with a bang in their next and final storyline.

Savage Dragon #129 (Erik Larsen, Image)
In the post-Mr. Glum world, we get some big fight scenes and the sort of boring threat of the Galactus-ripoff villain Universo, but what's interesting is the way that Larsen is exploring the consequences of Dragon harboring the seemingly harmless (and often amusing) Mr. Glum. It's impressive the way he turned that character from throwaway comic relief into a credible threat, and I'm glad that even though he's been defeated, his presence is still felt.

X-Factor #12 (Peter David/Renato Arlem & Roy Allen Martinez, Marvel)
Things with Singularity sort of wrap up, but as always David leaves plenty unanswered. I'm glad he's putting it all on the backburner for a while, though, because I've honestly found the whole Singularity thing less than compelling, and the retcon of Madrox's origin a little cumbersome. I do continue to like that David is dealing with the consequences of House of M, though, and I hope he'll continue to do so while bringing us some more interesting antagonists.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Movies opening this week

Flags of Our Fathers (Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford, dir. Clint Eastwood)
I've never been much for war movies, so something like this has to be really impressive to win me over, and it just wasn't. Not that it was awful - there's actually a really interesting true story behind it all, about the way the Iwo Jima photograph was taken and how the people in it were exploited after they came home. But the way it was presented crammed too much into one film, trying to tell that story as well as the story of the battle itself and a present-day framing sequence. All the flashbacks and flash-forwards made things way too confusing at times, and I had a really hard time keeping track of all the soldier characters (who are all the same age and build, basically, and have the same haircut and are wearing helmets) in the battle scenes, so that when someone died a dramatic death and other characters were wailing about it, I had no idea who it was or why I should care.

And, thanks to our friend Paul Haggis (who co-wrote the screenplay with William Broyles Jr.), there is lots of heavy-handed speechifying and thudding symbolism. To be fair, like he did with Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood elevates the screenplay with his assured, graceful direction, but it's still pretty clumsy and unfortunately tends to obscure the more complex and interesting points at the core of the story. There's also a huge expository voiceover at the end, as if they ran out of time and just decided to have one character tell you the rest of the story. So despite certain positive aspects, I thought this was a misfire overall, and I'd be surprised if it turned out to be the awards favorite it's been positioned as. Wide release

Keeping Mum (Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Rowan Atkinson, dir. Niall Johnson)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Remember when The Full Monty came out and the antics of quirky but hard-working small-town Brits seemed so fresh and funny? Those were the days. Opened limited Sept. 15; in Las Vegas this week

Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Steve Coogan, dir. Sofia Coppola)
I really wanted to like this movie. I think Sofia Coppola is immensely talented and a strong, unique voice in American cinema. I really like the idea of according respect to people and institutions regarded by many as frivolous or inconsequential (see my enormous love for Bring It On). I think that Coppola also has a deep understanding of the pressures and expectations that young women of privilege deal with, and is able to express them with empathy. And I thought that her anachronistic approach to telling the story of Marie Antoinette - the idea of making her seem like a wealthy, spoiled modern teenager - was brilliant. The problem, to me, was that the film didn't go far enough, wasn't nearly as bold as it sounded from its early press. The buoyant '80s music shows up mostly in montages of Marie eating decadent pastries or picking out clothes; otherwise the score is a rather staid, standard period-piece-type affair. While Dunst speaks in a modern vernacular (and gives a wonderful performance), other characters speak more like the stilted figures of your typical period film. There's a languid quality to many of the scenes that, while it worked in Coppola's earlier films, falls flat here. What this movie needed was more exuberance, more daring, more excess. Wide release

The Prestige (Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, dir. Christopher Nolan)
Having been disappointed with Batman Begins, and having read several less-than-enthusiastic early reviews of this, I came into this film with lowered expectations and was pleasantly surprised. The first hour is extremely slow, but as all the pieces start to come together, and the overly complex flashback-within-a-flashback structure irons itself out, everything works out beautifully. It's a puzzle movie, but the twists aren't cheats, and they make sense within the context of the story. Unlike Memento, there isn't much of a serious exploration of ideas beneath the twists and turns, but the theme of the cost of obsession is played out nicely if occasionally obviously. Even without much resonance beyond the plot mechanics, it's still a very satisfying film, with strong performances, a sumptuous look and a story that creeps up on you to become quite engaging by the time all is revealed. I still think Nolan has yet to live up to the great potential he showed with Memento, but if all he's going to do is make enjoyable, well-crafted genre films, there really isn't anything wrong with that. Wide release

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Festival fever

I've been MIA from posting for the past few days because I spent the weekend serving as a judge at the disastrous Festival of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and the Supernatural, a poorly organized and barely attended festival held in a hotel-casino convention space, and have been busy catching up on other work. I'll have a write-up on the festival in the coming issue of Las Vegas Weekly, but I will say now that if you are perusing your local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video in the next few months and come across either Mexican Werewolf in Texas or Death by Engagement, you might want to ignore your first instinct and give them a shot.

For those of you who live in the Las Vegas area and yearn to experience my sparkling presence in person, I'll be at another, better-organized, film festival this weekend. On Sunday, October 22, at 11 a.m., I'll be speaking on a critics panel as part of NeonFest, the Las Vegas gay and lesbian film festival, at the Gay and Lesbian Center of Southern Nevada. Admission is $10 and includes brunch, and the panel also features Mike Prevatt, arts & entertainment editor of Las Vegas CityLife; Victoria Alexander of Films in Review; and Anthony Del Valle, theater critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. I spoke on the panel when they had it at the 2004 festival, and it was lively and lots of fun.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Movies opening this week

The Grudge 2 (Amber Tamblyn, Edison Chan, Arielle Kebbel, Jennifer Beals, dir. Takashi Shimizu)
At this point, Takashi Shimizu has directed six movies in the American and Japanese The Grudge series, so it's no surprise that he's run out of new territory to explore. I actually thought the first American Grudge was semi-decent, but this one loses even the rudimentary strengths of its predecessor. The scares are repetitive, relying on the same tired jump techniques and sound effects and scary-haired girl as the first one. They basically just repeat the same moments over and over again, and the plot, divided into three very loosely connected stories, has no urgency or momentum. The first one actually made for a somewhat interesting allegory about Americans confused or bewildered by an alien culture, and that culture being literally deadly. But this one already has a third of the action taking place in America itself, and a predominantly American cast that wipes away even the hint of interesting subtext. Wide release

Infamous (Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig, dir. Douglas McGrath)
Pity poor Infamous, which will not make it out of a single review without being compared to Capote, with which it shares pretty much its entire subject matter. Even flattering comparisons reduce it to "that other Capote movie" status. And look, I'm doing it now, too. Anyway, my stance is that this is actually a better movie than Capote, which was bult entirely on Philip Seymour Hoffman's (admittedly very good) performance, and didn't give anyone else much to do. This movie is lighter and brighter and opens up the story more, spending more time in New York with Capote's society friends, and giving supporting characters like Harper Lee and Perry Smith more to say and do. Jones does perfectly well as Capote, making him more flamboyant than Hoffman did, but to me Bullock was the real surprise of the film, bringing a sympathy and pathos to Harper Lee that Catherine Keener did not convey (to be fair, that's because she had little to work with in the script). Honestly, after the way McGrath and Bullock subtly conveyed Lee's own frustrations at her missed opportunities and insecurities, I found myself hoping for an entire biopic on Lee, starring Sandra Bullock. Limited release

Man of the Year (Robin Williams, Laura Linney, Christopher Walken, dir. Barry Levinson)
Even though the trailers looked terrible, I was sort of amazed at how this movie managed to be awful in ways I never would have anticipated from seeing the advertising. I knew it would be full of unfunny, tired Robin Williams shtick (and it was). I guessed that it wouldn't be very politically astute (and it wasn't). But I had no idea that it would be less a comedy and more a half-assed political thriller, with gigantic plot holes and a weak concept that completely undermines any possibility for relevant political commentary. It's sad that this comes from the guy who made Wag the Dog, which is just as accurate and insightful today as it was back in 1997. This movie isn't even relevant for 1997, or 1987, for that matter. It's one of the saddest squandered opportunities I've ever seen. Wide release

One Night With the King (Tiffany Dupont, Luke Goss, John Rhys-Davies, James Callis, dir. Michael O. Sajbel)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm devoutly anti-religious, and I'm certainly not the audience for a Christian film, but even though I didn't think this movie was very good, I have to give the filmmakers credit for making an effort to appeal to a wider audience while still telling a clearly religious story, and for putting their budget to use with impressive location shoots and a cast with some pretty good actors. The next step, of course, is to find talented filmmakers who are willing and interested in making religious films, and not just handing writing and directing duties to people from the same insular community. Wide release

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

TV premiering tonight: 30 Rock & Twenty Good Years

The last fall season roll-out (not counting a few comedies that ABC has pushed back to mid-season) is an interesting contrast between old and new styles of sitcom. 30 Rock (NBC, Wednesdays, 8 p.m.) has been retooled significantly since the pilot I saw, with Rachel Dratch reduced to more of a cameo position, and Jane Krakowski added as a character (I assume) similar to Dratch's original part. So for all I know it might be much worse, but what I saw was funny and entertaining, much lighter certainly than Studio 60 but in certain ways more believable. There weren't that many laugh-out-loud moments, but there was a consistent pleasant, fun tone that left me with a good feeling and made me want to keep watching. Tina Fey is a very sharp writer, and unlike Aaron Sorkin she seems able to both write jokes and develop characters. I worry about all the meddling that's gone on prior to actual airing, but I still have high hopes for this show.

And while 30 Rock is a single-camera, laugh-track-free show with a sort of offbeat premise and a bit of drama and real emotion mixed in with its jokes, Twenty Good Years (NBC, Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m.) is like a relic from another era, a sitcom so formulaic and old-fashioned it might have been prepackaged for TV Land. It's the old mismatched buddy formula that goes back to The Odd Couple, with John Lithgow actually overacting more than he did on 3rd Rock From the Sun, if that's even possible. It's got a loud laugh track responding to unfunny jokes, and every cliche imaginable. It's really a terrible companion for 30 Rock, and a disappointment to find on the network that also has My Name is Earl and The Office. Ideally, it'll die off quickly and 30 Rock will do well enough to get paired with Scrubs, a much more compatible show, when it comes back in January.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Weekend viewing

Three Times (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2005)
Still catching up on notable 2006 releases before the end of the year (this is another foreign film that made it to the U.S. in 2006.) Hou is thought by many critics and cinephiles to be the world's greatest living filmmaker, but his films have barely been released in the U.S. (this one didn't make it to Vegas, or to most other cities in the country). Essentially three linked short films, each about 40 minutes, this is a mixed bag that I found alternately moving and frustrating. The three segments are each love stories of sorts, with main characters played by the same two actors, set in three different time periods in the director's home of Taiwan. The first story, set in 1966, is the most effective, a sweet and touchingly simple piece about two very shy people slowly finding a connection. All three stories are told with a minimum of dialogue (the second, set in 1911, is shot as a silent film and thus has no dialogue at all, just title cards), which means that the actors have to convey a lot of emotion with facial expressions and body language, which they do very well. Shu Qi, as the female half of each pair, is incredible (not to mention incredibly beautiful). Hou also does a lot to convey emotion with the camera. The third sequence, set in the present day, is too confusing and aloof for me, but the overall effect is still quite powerful.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

New comics 10/4

Agents of Atlas #3 (Jeff Parker/Leonard Kirk, Marvel)
Given that Parker spends five pages explaining and revising the convoluted obscure continuity of Marvel Boy, this issue could be a bore for all except the most hardcore of Marvel geeks. And yet he's consistently able to turn all this dense continuity explication into the basis for fun and exciting storytelling. I didn't know a single thing about these characters before picking up this series, so I couldn't care less if their appearances jibe with how they were in some issue of Fantastic Four 30 years ago, but I appreciate Parker's thorough attention to detail, and the way he harnesses all these disparate threads of various stories (up to and including Civil War, briefly) and uses them to build his own. He does basically undo a lot of the Marvel Boy stuff, but there's a nice fake-out at the end where it seems like he's going to resurrect another old character, only to turn our expectations of such things being reversed against us.

The All-New Atom #4 (Gail Simone/Eddy Barrows, DC)
This remains a solid but rarely exceptional superhero book, and I kind of wonder why I'm still reading it. It's always pleasant and mildly interesting, but a little underwhelming, and it's probably not really worth the money I'm paying for it. Barrows replaces John Byrne after a very short run, and delivers some solid superhero art, a little less murky than Byrne's work, but nothing outstanding. After four issues of mild interest, I'm thinking it's time to call it a day.

Criminal #1 (Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips, Marvel/Icon)
I've never been as crazy about Ed Brubaker's writing as most people seem to be - I liked his Vertigo mini-series Scene of the Crime well enough, back before he was a superstar, but Gotham Central bored me enough to drop it after a few issues, and although I read the first two collections of Sleeper and thought they were decent, I wasn't blown away. I haven't bothered with any of his superhero work, but this creator-owned crime book seemed promising. And it's not bad, a perfectly serviceable piece of crime fiction that does nothing particularly original but tells a solid story. It's enough to get me reading the next issue, but I still don't see the brilliance in Brubaker's work that so many others seem to.

Doctor Strange: The Oath #1 (Brian K. Vaughan/Marcos Martin, Marvel)
Brian Vaughan, however, I would follow anywhere, even to a mini-series starring a character I have absolutely no interest in. Honestly, my favorite part of this issue was the throwaway scene at the beginning between Arana and Iron Fist, which really makes me wish Vaughan would create a book solely populated with C-list Marvel characters (which he sort of did with the Excelsior team in Runaways). I also like his use of the reimagined Night Nurse character created by Brian Bendis. As for the actual Doctor Strange story, it's a good but not great tale that successfully combines the character's mystical background with his medical training, and the issue ends with a very Vaughan-esque shocker that certainly gives the story some high stakes. Martin's art is also fantastic and otherworldly, so even if this isn't Vaughan's best work, it's still a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Fallen Angel #9 (Peter David/J.K. Woodward, IDW)
The Angel finally shows up toward the end of this issue after being gone for all of issue eight, and it's good to have her back. It's also good to have a story focused on Bete Noire and its supporting cast, including the increasingly important Sachs and Violens. David brings elements of the Angel's origin story into the present with the ending cliffhanger, proving that he's always weaving one big story, no matter how things are divided up.

The Irredeemable Ant-Man #1 (Robert Kirkman/Phil Hester, Marvel)
All the stuff I said above about Ed Brubaker applies to Kirkman as well, whose work has never much impressed me as it has so many others. I read the first Walking Dead collection, which sounds like something I'd really enjoy, and it didn't do anything for me, and I randomly picked up the first three issues of Tales of the Realm at a 10-cent sale and found them completely lame. But this concept, about a superhero who's a self-centered asshole, sounded fun, and I figured Kirkman deserved another shot. Like Criminal, this first issue is okay, but doesn't really grab me. The opening scene, in which Ant-Man saves a woman from being robbed and then demands that she go out with him as a reward, was funny and refreshing, but the flashback to the long origin story was a boring slog. I don't really care about the whole "Which character really is Ant-Man?" shtick, but I'll keep reading if the focus can stay on the main character and his cynical cashing in on being a superhero.

X-Men: Pheonix - Warsong #2 (Greg Pak/Tyler Kirkham, Marvel)
I wonder if Pak is packing too much into the origin of the Stepford Cuckoos, making them too complicated when their appeal was always how mysteriously creepy they were. But I like that he's building on Grant Morrison's ideas from New X-Men, when most other writers seem to be ignoring them. This is ending up to be not really a story about the Phoenix, which is fine, since there doesn't seem to be much point to that without Jean Grey around. But it's a good X-Men story that moves things forward, which I like, even if Kirkham's art is still painfully cheesy and stiff.

Y the Last Man #50 (Brian K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra, DC/Vertigo)
As we learn more and more about the reasons behind the plague, it sadly becomes less and less interesting. The truth is that pretty much any explanation, after all this build-up, would be a disappointment, and at least tying things into the main characters gives the whole epic a nice sort of closure. But I would almost have preferred no explanation, and for the story to wrap up in a more ambiguous way. Other than that, the typical sharp character moments and clear, effective art anchor the issue even when the plot is a little wobbly.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Movies opening this week

The Departed (Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Vera Farmiga, dir. Martin Scorsese)
I have to admit, I am not one of those people who worships at the altar of Scorsese. To be fair (and I realize this is rather shameful as a film critic), I haven't seen many of his most notable films: Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino. The one Scorsese classic I have seen, Taxi Driver, I didn't much care for. However, I thought his last film, The Aviator, was outstanding, and I went into this movie based on early reviews and the fantastic cast expecting to like it. And I did, up to a point: It's an entertaining, if convoluted and overlong, crime thriller, with solid performances from DiCaprio, Damon, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin. It adheres relatively closely to the plot of the movie on which it's based, the 2002 Hong Kong action film Infernal Affairs, although Scorsese is clearly more interested in being taken seriously and thus tones down the action and grounds the violence (and there's plenty of violence) in a more low-key realism.

The problem is that this is really just a ridiculous melodrama, and while the original film (which I liked about as much) understood this, Scorsese seems to think he's making a grand statement about race and class in Boston (where his version is set). The first half of the film contains plenty of tortured speeches about growing up poor and racial invectives meant to illustrate inner-city tensions. But most of that gets abandoned when the plot machinations kick into high gear, and ultimately this isn't a movie with much to say about anything. Which is fine, but its bloated running time and self-important dialogue sit at odds with the meat-and-potatoes thriller at the center. It's as if Scorsese wanted to trim the Hollywood grandeur that marked his last two movies but still not cut off his chances of scoring some Oscar nominations.

And then there's Jack, who seems to have wandered in straight from playing the Joker and just wiped off the makeup. The whole over-the-top thing works for him in the right context, but he spends the entire film off in his own little world, and undermines whatever seriousness it might at any time build up. There were all sorts of reports about how Nicholson just did whatever he felt like during filming, and that may be true, but Scorsese ought to have reined him in because he derails the movie every time he's onscreen. The rest of the actors are perfectly good, although not outstanding, given the fact that the script offers very little beyond surface character insights. This isn't a psychological thriller, though, or at least it shouldn't be, and the problems arise when it tries for that kind of depth. Farmiga's police psychologist is a terrible stereotype of a weak-willed woman, and making her the lover of both main characters (they had different girlfriends in the original) just adds that much more contrivance and melodrama to the story.

Despite all those problems, it's still suspenseful and exciting, with masterful editing and cinematography from longtime Scorsese collaborators Thelma Schoonmaker and Michael Ballhaus, and a very effective classic-rock soundtrack. I just find all the "best movie of the year" talk way overblown; at its heart, this is just another well-made but pointless remake. Wide release

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

TV premiering tonight: The Nine

The latest attempt to capitalize on the Lost lead-in comes with high expectations, and the results are mixed. Maybe I'm just still slightly bitter from the cancellation of Invasion, but this didn't immediately strike me as something so much better, although I suppose they've learned from the slow, methodical initial pacing of Invasion that turned a lot of people off, as this show is much more fast-paced and energetic. While I do like the central gimmick (the main characters were hostages in a bank-robbery standoff for 52 hours, and each episode follows them in their post-trauma lives while also revealing a few minutes of the actual robbery), it's obviously got a limited shelf life, and once all the details of the robbery are revealed, the characters will have to be interesting enough on their own without the narrative device to keep the show going.

A show simply about the aftermath of a hostage situation and how people were changed would sound interesting enough to me, and the addition of the willfully obscure mystery elements doesn't really make it more interesting to me. This is one of those shows where characters will essentially have a conversation like, "Hey are we going to talk about that really important, life-changing thing that happened during the bank robbery?" "No, let's wait until three episodes from now to talk about it." That sort of thing is just infuriating to viewers because it's so contrived, and it means the mystery is developing artificially. Or, to put it another way: On Lost, we mostly learn things as the characters learn them, so we want them to find out what's going on as much as we want to find out ourselves. But on this show, the characters already know the answers to the mysteries, and they're just keeping them from us.

Despite these problems, I still think this is a good show with lots of potential, mainly because the characters are interesting enough that I could see them carrying a series without the narrative gimmick, and because the old-fashioned cliffhanger at the end of the first episode made me want to find out what happened next. The acting is good and the premise does hook you, so I'll definitely be watching, at least for a little while. ABC, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

TV premiering tonight: Friday Night Lights

I'm not quite as gushingly enthusiastic about this show as Virginia Heffernan (who's positively orgasmic over it), but I did find the pilot the biggest pleasant surprise of the new season. I liked but didn't love the movie, and although the pilot follows a lot of the film's elements fairly closely (both were written and directed by Peter Berg), its style stands out a lot more in a network TV show than it does in a theatrical feature film. It's a teen drama that's not flashy or over the top, a serious look at a world and subject (small-town high school football in Texas) that most people are disinclined to take seriously. There is good acting all around, a resistance to grandstanding, and characters whose depths are just being plumbed in the pilot.

I'm just about as much the opposite of a football fan as possible, but I found this show really worthwhile and satisfying, and probably more so since it didn't come with the hype and expectations of stuff like Studio 60 or Heroes. Kyle Chandler wisely doesn't try to copy Billy Bob Thornton, instead making the coach's role his own, giving it more balance and a quieter intensity. The teen actors don't seem to be giving in to the trashy style of so many young stars, although the characters certainly do behave like teens.

In short, it's just a really good, engrossing drama, and I hope that it will find an audience. I worry that people like me who aren't sports fans won't give it a chance, and people who are sports fans may find it too introspective. NBC's been ramping up the promos lately, but I hadn't seen that much advertising before this week. It's got tough competition (Dancing with the Stars, NCIS, and, worst of all for attracting sports fans, baseball playoffs on Fox) and the added confusion of being a show with the word "Friday" in the title that airs on Tuesdays (which NBC mocks in this amusing YouTube ad). It would probably do much better if it could air before or after actual football games, but that doesn't seem to be in the cards.

I do worry a little about the show sustaining its structure (the pilot counts down the days until Friday, culminating in the big game), since focusing each episode on a must-win game would quickly lose its dramatic urgency. But there is more than enough material here that that doesn't have to be the case, and if the first episode is any indication, there are very few missteps in this show's future. NBC, Tuesdays, 8 p.m.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Weekend viewing

Duck Season (Fernando Eimbcke, 2004)
As the end of the year approaches and awards season looms, I'm trying to catch up on some critically acclaimed 2006 releases that I missed that might be candidates for year-end awards. (This movie was out in Mexico in 2004 but released in the U.S. this year.) I will say now that this one isn't making my top 10 list, although it had some beautiful black and white cinematography and good performances from its child-star leads, especially Danny Perea. It's a slow, languid movie about a lazy Sunday afternoon at home without adults for three adolescents, and although it's a little inert at first, it does pick up in the last third with some nice, understated moments among the characters that do a good job of catching the anxieties and uncertainties of early adolescents. Eimbcke does some wonderfully evocative things with mise en scene, but the slightness of his story can't always live up to the beauty of his images and staging.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom, 2006)
This one isn't making my list, either, although it's a fitfully funny take on the perils of making an independent film. The conceit is that it's based on a famously unfilmable self-referential novel, so it becomes a very self-referential film, mixing bits of the actual story in with the behind-the-scenes tale of making the film. But I was hoping for more of the story from the novel, which was far outweighed by the in-jokey backstage stuff. I have a feeling I would have found this funnier if I were British and thus more familiar with star Steve Coogan, who is hugely famous over there. As it stands, I found it just a mildly funny entry in the rather played-out "film industry pokes fun at itself" genre.

New comics 9/27

American Virgin #7 (Steven T. Seagle/Becky Cloonan, DC/Vertigo)
I feel sort of silly buying this every month and then saying, "Uh, I still don't know what it's about and I'm not sure I like it." At this point, I guess I'll buy the next two issues and read until the end of this arc, but I just have no idea what Seagle is going for here, and I obviously wasn't that riveted by the last issue since I had a tough time remembering who some of the characters were. I like the idea of having a religious main character who remains faithful in the face of all sorts of tests, but Seagle is sort of turning him into the sexual-temptation equivalent of Job, and it's getting a little old. At some point he's either going to have to give in to temptation or just walk away from all the seediness, and when that happens, there'll be no more series. I just can't see this premise sustaining a long-term narrative, and maybe that's what's contributing to my waning interest.

Cable & Deadpool #32 (Fabian Nicieza/Staz Johnson, Marvel)
The Civil War crossover wraps up, and even though Nicieza has taken it much more seriously than he did House of M, it still felt like an annoying distraction. I'm getting a little tired of Cable's relentless holier-than-thou grandstanding, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere new. Civil War affords him the perfect opportunity to lecture about his worldview, and even though it does relate to the story, it's starting to seem a little worn, and it makes the character feel one-dimensional. Deadpool still offers a very entertaining counterpoint, and hopefully the next arc will be something a little lighter so that we can get a break from the philosophizing for a little bit.

Jack of Fables #3 (Bill Willingham & Matthew Sturges/Tony Akins, DC/Vertigo)
This series is growing on me, although Jack is still the least interesting character in it. One of the best things about the core Fables series is its sprawling, varied cast, and if Willingham and Sturges can replicate that, then I think this book has potential. I don't think it's going to work confined to the internment camp, though, but since we're already getting an escape attempt in issue three, I hope that means we'll leave it behind soon and maybe Jack will take some of the interesting supporting characters along on his next adventure.

She-Hulk #12 (Dan Slott/Rick Burchett, Marvel)
It's been a while since this book has featured an actual trial, and I was happy for the return of the vagaries of superhuman law. I can see how fans of Starfox and even Thanos may be upset with what Slott's doing here, because it seems like some pretty serious retcons. But I'm not as dedicated to that sort of thing, so I'm more intrigued at the way that Slott is exploring the real implications of mind-control powers to their logical conclusion, and the continued mess that it's all made of She-Hulk's personal life.

Also out this week: Civil War: Young Avengers & Runaways #3, which continues to be such a bland, pedestrian superhero tale that I won't even bother to comment at length on it. Zeb Wells manages to squander two teams of really interesting characters as well as the entire concept of the crossover, and it's just sad.