Sunday, December 31, 2006

New comics 12/28

Astonishing X-Men #19 (Joss Whedon/John Cassaday, Marvel)
After a sluggish end to the last storyline (or, really, segment of the overall storyline), Whedon returns with a vengeance, showing the interstellar adventure side of the X-Men as his definite storytelling strong suit. The opening, set on the Breakworld among its citizens, is probably the most effective part, and Whedon gives a real sense of the epic scope and urgency of the story (aided, as always, by Cassaday's phenomenal artwork). Even though the biggest strengths of this issue are not the X-Men character moments that Whedon has staked his work on, it still looks like an indication of a solid finish for his and Cassaday's run.

Nextwave #11 (Warren Ellis/Stuart Immonen, Marvel)
I just went over the many great things about this book in my year-end wrap-up, so I'll just say that all of that applies here, especially Immonen's stellar artwork. People who complain about Ellis' tendency toward decompression may hate this issue, which has six two-page spreads of the team fighting various bizarre creatures cooked up by the Beyond Corporation, but the creativity and detail that Immonen brings to the creations (which include evil clones of Stephen Hawking that shoot beams out of their eyes; MODOKs with Elvis heads; a giant ape Wolverine and little chimp Wolverines; and snakes on planes) meant that I spent as much time staring at those pages as I would have if they were filled with panels and dialogue.

Also out this week: Crossing Midnight #2 and Jack of Fables #6, both of which my local store missed because of shipping problems. I'll pick them up and maybe comment on them next week.

Best of 2006: Comic books

I've got TV and movie top-ten lists in last week's Las Vegas Weekly, although I'll probably do an expansion on the movie list some time in the next week. But since I don't cover comics professionally, this list is a little more personal and much more narrow, reflecting only what I choose to lay out my own money for. I don't pretend to be comprehensive; this is, however, the best of the comics I read in single issues in 2006. (Click on the images for larger versions.)

1. Fell (Warren Ellis/Ben Templesmith, Image)
This was at the top of my list last year after only three issues, and even though Ellis and Templesmith only managed to put out three more issues this year (fewer, I believe, than Ellis' notoriously slow Planetary did), it's once again the absolute best thing I read on a regular basis, and a reminder of how powerful and direct Ellis' storytelling can be. Each issue packs an incredible amount into its 16 story pages, and Templesmith creates the perfect surreal mood for the world of Snowtown, while toning down some of his abstract tendencies to tell clear, concise stories. It's creepy, suspenseful and clever, and each issue is a complete tale. Now if only it came out more often.

2. Runaways (Brian K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona & Mike Norton, Marvel)
I had worries about this book declining in quality with so many status quo changes, but Vaughan made every unexpected twist a welcome one, even the death of Gert, which opened up all sorts of interesting story possibilities. He's really developed these characters a great deal over the course of the two series, and it'll be a definite end of an era when he and Alphona leave the book after the next two issues. I have high hopes that Joss Whedon and Michael Ryan can keep it near the top of this list for next year, though.

3. Nextwave (Warren Ellis/Stuart Immonen, Marvel)
It's weird to have two Ellis books in my top three, considering how much mediocre crap he still churns out (Down, Black Gas, Newuniversal, even the limping later issues of Planetary - all 2006), but this and Fell are so different that they could easily be from two different writers. Although this also tells mostly self-contained stories, it's the opposite of the somber, brooding Fell - it's pure superhero over-the-topness, with crazy humor and Immonen's great pop-art character designs and action sequences. Although many see it as a parody of Marvel superheroes, to me this is one of the few superhero comics that Ellis has done that doesn't radiate his contempt for the genre. It exudes a giddy acceptance of the ridiculousness of superhero stories and takes them to another level while actually remaining remarkably respectful of the characters. It could easily wear thin, though, and I think the fact that it's ending after issue 12 is probably for the best. I only hope that Ellis can come up with something equally insane to follow it up.

4. Fables (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham & various, DC/Vertigo)
Willingham has said that, unlike most creator-owned Vertigo longform series, Fables has no definite end in sight, and he plans to keep putting it out as long as possible. That might be troubling for some series, but Willingham has created such an expansive, multi-faceted cast and so many story possibilities that it's hard to imagine his ever running out of material. He managed to give Bigby and Snow, the early starring characters of the book, a happy ending of sorts while keeping them important to the overall story, and has made characters like Prince Charming, Cinderella and Boy Blue come alive in new and different ways this year. Buckingham's art remains phenomenal in its detail and design sense, both of characters and of the various fable worlds, and the fill-in artists are nearly as good. I'd be happy to see this book continue for years to come.

5. Fallen Angel (Peter David/J.K. Woodward, IDW)
I was skeptical at first about the relaunch of this series, which was such a departure for David and for DC in its first run. And I didn't much care for Woodward's painted art in the first arc, although I like his work better now that he's using standard pencils and ink. Even though I don't think this is quite as good as the first volume, it's been a really fascinating read, exploring the main character's past and allowing David to indulge in many theological arguments that were beyond the scope of the earlier issues (and probably wouldn't have gotten past the editors at DC). It's not just religious musings, though - there has been some strong, spooky storytelling that was the biggest strength of the earlier run, and an interesting new dynamic between the Angel and her fallen (in a different way) son.

6. Y the Last Man (Brian K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra & Goran Sudzuka, DC/Vertigo)
Unlike Fables, this does feel like it needs an ending, so it's good that things will be coming to a close at some point in 2007. There were a few too many origin-type one-shots in this book this year that felt a little like filler, but the two main arcs of the year were just as exciting and compelling as this book has been since day one, and Vaughan has really evolved the series' world in logical yet unexpected ways over the last four years or so. I do feel like I know these characters really well, and hope for things to turn out positively for them in the end. Even if the explanation for the plague turned out to be anti-climactic, this book is as much about people as it is about ideas, and those people are as captivating to read about as ever.

7. The Surrogates (Robert Venditti/Brett Weldele, Top Shelf)
This mini-series wrapped up early this year, but it wasn't on my 2005 list and it probably should have been. It's a very smart, well-thought-out sci-fi tale that combines excitement and suspense with believable, intelligent futurism, creating a wholly new but entirely familiar world just around the bend. This is the kind of thing that I wish we saw more of in sci-fi film, and I'd love to see some daring filmmaker option this and not turn it into a soulless action blockbuster. I'd also love to see what promising new talent Venditti has up his sleeve next.

8. Ex Machina (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris & Chris Sprouse, DC/Wildstorm)
It took me a little while to get into this book when it first launched, and it didn't make last year's list. But Vaughan has done a great job of integrating the political material with the vaguely superhero-ish action, and creating heightened levels of suspense and intrigue along the way. He's made the characters much more real to me, while also showing how what they do in each seemingly small instance has a larger resonance. The two-issue Ex Machina Special, with art by Sprouse, also proved Vaughan can go back and tell a great superhero action story while maintaining the sharp political tone. With his runs on Y and Runaways ending soon, this will clearly be the longform Vaughan work to keep an eye on.

9. Batman: Secrets (Sam Kieth, DC)
I've been a Sam Kieth fan ever since the days of The Maxx over at Image, and it seemed like he was on a slow decline for a while over the last few years. But this series brought Kieth an artistic renaissance in an unexpected place - a Batman mini-series - allowing him to explore his typical sexually fucked-up female characters and buried childhood trauma in the context of a (sort of) mainstream superhero tale. It also found him doing some of his best drawing in ages, and even if the ultimate wrap-up was a little disappointingly conventional, it still pointed to a brighter future for one of the industry's most underappreciated talents.

10. The Middle Man (Javier Grillo-Marxuach/Les McClaine, Viper)
The second volume of this fun little adventure series was more cohesive and more entertaining than the first, with Grillo-Marxuach's quippy, zippy writing and McClaine's kinetic, cartoony art. At its best, it reminded me of what I used to love about Danger Girl, and any light, fast-paced adventure book with a sexy female protagonist. I don't know if there are any more installments of this on the docket now that Grillo-Marxuach is busy writing Marvel books and Battlestar Galactica spinoffs, as well as continuing to work in TV, but I'd certainly welcome them.

Honorable mentions: Powers, which came out of an endless storyline and a general malaise to prove that it can still be shocking and exciting, and X-Factor, which stumbled with multiple artists and narrative meandering most of the year, but has found strong footing in recent issues with the arrival of Pablo Raimondi on art and Peter David's adjusted focus on team dynamics and superhero intrigue.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Weekend viewing

Bananas (Woody Allen, 1971)
I'm a huge Woody Allen fan, but I'm actually not that crazy about his "early, funny" movies, or at least not the ones I've seen (pretty much just this one and Sleeper). Like Sleeper, this is a rather haphazard collection of slapstick bits and sight gags hung on a thin plot with some mild political commentary. It's a little more pointedly satirical than Sleeper was, especially in the opening scene featuring Howard Cosell doing play-by-play on an assassination in a small South American country (a stand-in for Cuba). The bits were hit and miss, although some were very funny, and I did like how all the South American revolutionaries behaved like neurotic New York Jews half the time. The best scene, though, had nothing to do with the South American revolution plot: It was Allen being dumped by his girlfriend, played by Louise Lasser, as she casually named off all his shortcomings while trying to put her finger on why exactly their relationship wasn't working. A very funny glimpse into the more typical Allen scenes of future films.

The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)
Serendipitously after I so enjoyed Dreamgirls last week, this classic musical showed up at the top of my Netflix queue (although really the two films are quite different). Despite my genuine enthusiasm for Dreamgirls, I still find musicals often tough to get into, and this one grabbed me a little at the beginning only to lose me completely in the last third or so. I liked the allegory for the decline of Fred Astaire's career (although this is the first Astaire movie I've seen), I liked the classic "That's Entertainment!" number, and I liked Nanette Fabray as the spunky comic-relief redhead. I was less crazy about bland Cyd Charisse as the love interest, and the abandonment of the already thin plot at the end for a bunch of random set pieces that relate to each other in only the loosest of ways. I did like the dancing, but I feel like a little of that goes a long way for me, and I sort of tuned out after a while. I preferred the last Minnelli musical I saw, Gigi, which had more substance to its plot and characters. This is basically just an excuse for Astaire and friends to goof off and have fun, which is fine for dedicated fans of his, but not enough to hold my interest.

Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
Here's another one of those classics that presents a viewing experience full of waiting for famous lines to be uttered, which is something I find unavoidable. At the same time, this is a very satisfying noir with a plot that actually makes sense and has some interesting political ideas (it's hard now to fathom anyone being neutral in WWII and seeing Nazis as just another political group, but undoubtedly it was not uncommon). Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains are all wonderful, and, even though I loved Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, you can see how this film was genuine and passionate in a way that Soderbergh's film school exercise could never replicate.

Tango (Carlos Saura, 1998)
This one is a musical, too, in a way, although there isn't any singing. The description of Saura's film makes it sound like a straightforward drama about a divorced director working on a show about the tango who falls in love with his star, the girlfriend of a powerful gangster. But it's actually an oddly impressionistic presentation of that story, with a blurred line between fantasy and reality, a weird meta element that finds Saura purposely showing his camera in mirrors around the dance studio, and long dance sequences meant to tantalize the senses and illuminate...something. My senses were mostly confused and bored.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

New comics 12/20

Cable & Deadpool #35 (Fabian Nicieza/Reilly Brown, Marvel)
This is a decent stand-alone story with Cable once again acting all holier-than-thou, this time by forcing Deadpool to confront hallucinations of all the obscure characters he's killed off, which probably has more resonance if you are intimately familiar with Deadpool's continuity (I certainly am not). I wonder if Nicieza intends for readers to find Cable an increasingly sanctimonious jackass, because that's definitely what's happening with me. This appears to be the lead-in to a story in which Deadpool tries to find himself and questions his morality, which is okay as long as it still features all of the humor that serves as this issue's strongest element and keeps it from being sappy and manipulative (like Cable). Brown's art is serviceable but still a little too cartoony and broad, and the excellent Tom Raney cover just reminds me that someone better could be drawing this book.

Criminal #3 (Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips. Marvel/Icon)
Still not quite as taken as most people with this book, but it's a solid crime story and this issue raises some predictable complications while remaining a bit unexpected as well. Nothing earth-shattering going on here, but the characters are interesting and the scenario has enough suspense that I'm willing to read the rest of the arc to see where it leads.

Fables #56 (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham, DC/Vertigo)
A cute little story about Santa Claus made more interesting by Santa providing some ominous foreshadowing about the coming battle with the Adversary, and restoring Flycatcher to his human state. It was also nice to see that Snow and Bigby didn't just ride off into the sunset never to be heard from again, and that more than just having a cute Christmas, they'll be participating in some potential intrigue by heading off to visit Bigby's father. Some requisite "miracle of Christmas" stuff, but Santa seems like an interesting character with secrets of his own, and it'd be kind of cool for Willingham to integrate him into the larger story. Who knows, that just might happen.

She-Hulk #14 (Dan Slott/Rick Burchett, Marvel)
A so-so stand-alone issue about Awesome Andy, with lots of references to silly Silver Age continuity. He does seem to have done about all he can do, so writing him out at this point is probably wise. Meanwhile, She-Hulk and John break up, and S.H.I.E.L.D. shows up to recruit her for the next storyline. With half the supporting cast gone and Jen whisked away from the law firm, this is starting to look like an entirely different book, and I'm not yet sure if that's a good thing.

Walk In #1 (Jeff Parker/Ashish Padlekar, Virgin)
I've been sort of ignoring Virgin since picking up the first issue of Snakewoman and finding it mediocre (I intended to pick up the second issue, but missed it and never bothered going back). So this seemed like a good chance to give them another look: It's a mini-series; it was created by Dave Stewart of the Eurhythmics (which is sort of random); it's written by Jeff Parker, whose work I've mostly enjoyed on Agents of Atlas; and it's got an interesting premise not based on bringing Indian mythology to the West. This turns out to be a promising if not outstanding first issue, mostly setting up the protagonist, who sees a strange alternate world just behind our own. Parker's writing is breezy and the hero, Ian, is amusing, and the story shows promise even if it's hard to tell where it's going. The art is sometimes shaky but mostly effective, and tells the story well. I will make sure to make more of an effort to track down this second issue than I did with Snakewoman.

Y the Last Man #52 (Brian K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra, DC/Vertigo)
Vaughan seems to be putting a button on the explanation of the plague here and focusing the remaining issues on reuniting Yorick with his girlfriend. That's fine with me, as the whole explanation storyline has been sort of anti-climactic, and the eventual reunion with Beth should be more emotionally satisfying. This actually reads like a final issue in many ways, with heartfelt goodbyes and a wrapping-up of storylines, and there aren't many loose ends to tie up before the book comes to a close.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Movies opening this week

Dreamgirls (Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, dir. Bill Condon)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I find the critical trend on this movie interesting and sort of disappointing, since I really liked it and it was made out to be this foregone Oscar-winning conclusion before it was released. And normally I find foregone Oscar-winning conclusions rather lacking as films, but I thought this one did exactly what a big, prestigious Hollywood spectacle should do, and entertained me probably more than any other movie out this year on a purely pop level. So while overall the reviews are positive, it saddens me that many of the positive notices are somewhat reserved, and so many of the critics I most respect (Sean Burns, Walter Chaw, A.O. Scott, Ed Gonzalez, Nick Schager) didn't like the movie, or didn't like very much about it. (Thankfully, Scott Foundas knows what I'm talking about.) It's not even that I think all the criticisms are invalid - the music is probably too bland, although I wouldn't say it's unmemorable; I was humming new song "Love You I Do" for days after seeing the film the second time earlier this week. But it does sort of Broadway-ize Motown a bit, and the character development and social commentary can be shallow. But I think Condon's visual style tells the story perfectly, and that those unsubtle elements work exactly as they should in a film that is larger than life. Most successful movie musicals of the last decade or so have been deconstructionist pieces (Dancer in the Dark, Moulin Rouge, South Park), as have many unsuccessful ones, for that matter (The Singing Detective, Idlewild), and this just works on a purely classic, let's-put-on-a-show kind of way. I am virtually never in agreement when audiences erupt into applause during movies, but this time I was right there with them (if not actually, y'know, applauding). Opened limited Dec. 15; wide release on Monday

The Good Shepherd (Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, John Turturro, dir. Robert De Niro)
I'm sorry, but this movie bored me out of my mind. I was actually quite looking forward to it - the screening was at an inconvenient time and I didn't think I was going to make it, but I finished what I was doing early and rushed over just in time - and by about halfway through I couldn't wait for it to be over. It's nearly three hours long, dry as a bone and dull as reading a textbook. For a movie about espionage, there is very little suspense and almost no action whatsoever, and Damon's character is a complete blank. He's meant to be stoic and unemotional, but he's so detached that he can't possibly hold the movie together, and he's in every scene. There are a lot of good actors in small parts (Alec Baldwin, Joe Pesci, Michael Gambon, Billy Crudup, De Niro himself), but it just comes off like De Niro went through his rolodex and called in a bunch of favors, and those actors don't really bring anything outstanding to their brief appearances. And poor Angelina Jolie comes in like a force of nature at first, like she's going to be the only interesting thing in the movie, and ends up quickly relegated to the clichéd put-upon wife role that anyone could have played. What a waste. Wide release

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, Milo Ventimiglia, Antonio Tarver, Burt Young, dir. Sylvester Stallone)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I got an email today from someone who disagreed with my review but told me it was "one of the better poor reviews" he'd read. I guess that's really all that I can hope for; the people who are going to like this movie are going to like it no matter what, and I'm just never going to connect with what it is that appeals to them about it. Not that I thought it was terrible or offensive or anything, but I did walk out of the theater wondering what exactly the point of it all was. Wide release

Monday, December 18, 2006

Weekend viewing

The Slumber Party Massacre (Amy Holden Jones, 1982)
This is another pick from Slant's "Camp Horror" feature, and much more enjoyable than Sleepaway Camp, the last one I watched. It is, of course, far from great cinema, but in less than 80 minutes it delivers more blood, humor and toplessness than almost every mainstream horror movie being released these days, and does so quite effectively. Oddly for a cheapie exploitation horror movie (in which the main character takes her top off within the first two minutes), it was written and directed by women (the screenplay is by noted mystery novelist Rita Mae Brown), and some have put a sort of mild feminist interpretation on it. I don't know about that, but there is a great shot from between the legs of the killer as he brandishes his very phallic murder weapon (a drill) at one of his victims. Later, the heroine slices his drill bit right off. There's a lot of visual humor like that, and at least as many fake-outs as actual murders, probably thanks to the fact that Brown originally wrote the screenplay as a parody of slasher movies. It ended up more straightforward, but still more clever than you'd expect.

Tideland (Terry Gilliam, 2006)
This was the last screener I meant to watch before voting on year-end awards and putting together my top 10 list, and I didn't quite make it in time. Not that it really made a difference - I wouldn't have put it anywhere on my awards ballot or my top 10 list, and I didn't necessarily expect to, given the mostly dismal reviews it received during its very limited release earlier this year. But I love Terry Gilliam, and I even liked the universally panned The Brothers Grimm, so I didn't want to pass up the chance to see this. Obviously it's very different from Grimm, which was a relatively sanitized studio adventure movie with a bit of Gilliam flair. This is Gilliam unfettered, and it's rather nasty and unpleasant to watch, although it's brimming with imagination and fearlessness, perhaps even to its own detriment. Gilliam has always been able to show the darker side of whimsy while still retaining a sense of wonder, but in this film the darkness takes over, and the fantasy world of main character Jeliza-Rose is more disturbing than endearing. That is, the 10-year-old girl is just as insane and delusional as the whacked-out adults around her, and just as frustrating. Jodelle Ferland's performance, exaggerated Blanche DuBois Southern accent and all, is one of the most out-there I've ever seen from a child actor, but I'd hesitate to call it good. That's kind of how I felt about the movie as a whole.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

New comics 12/13

It was a big week for Peter David, apparently.

Ex Machina #25 (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
This one-shot focusing on Bradbury is better than the similar origin-style one-offs that Vaughan did in Y the Last Man, illuminating relevant details about the character that we didn't previously know and telling a satisfying little framing story as well. I imagine some of these elements will become important later, but even if they don't, this was a very good single issue as a break between larger story arcs.

Fallen Angel #11 (Peter David/J.K. Woodward, IDW)
A new arc starts promisingly, with David even further corrupting the Angel's do-gooder son Jude. I like that he's once again setting mother and son at odds, and I like that this is another arc driven by outside forces and not by more flashbacks and introspection about the Angel's past. We know a lot now about who she is, so it's good to start seeing again what she does.

Wonder Man #1 (Peter David/Andrew Currie, Marvel)
I don't know about this one. If it weren't for David's involvement, I doubt I would have given it a look, as the cover art is atrocious and the character has never much interested me. Wonder Man is known as a rather comedic hero, but the tone here is an odd mix of gritty and whimsical, and I'm not quite sure what the opening post-apocalyptic scene was about. The premise - Wonder Man makes over a super-villain, Pygmalion-style, has potential for humor, but it's being played too straight for now to be really amusing. Currie's exaggerated art sometimes works for the tone but mostly looks rather ugly, for some reason giving all characters jutting Jay Leno-style chins. I'm not yet sure if David's involvement contains enough promise to get me to pick up the next issue.

X-Factor #14 (Peter David/Pablo Raimondi, Marvel)
This book seems reinvigorated since Raimondi came on-board, and this continues the high quality of the last issue, following up on many of the plot threads introduced in the team therapy sessions and bringing in more of David's trademark sense of humor (it's funnier than most of the alleged comedy in Wonder Man). There are also nice character moments and a good cliffhanger setting up the latest storyline. I still think the "Madrox is not really a mutant" element is a needlessly complicating retcon, but otherwise everything here is going strongly for the first time since the series first started.

Also out this week: X-Men: Phoenix - Warsong #4, but after the increasing absurdity and crappy art of the first three issues, I decided it was time to cut my losses and pass on the rest of the mini-series.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Movies opening this week

Eragon (Ed Speleers, Jeremy Irons, Robert Carlyle, Sienna Guillory, dir. Stefen Fangmeier)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I have absolutely nothing to add about this movie, which rightfully should bomb at the box office and leave the trilogy it's meant to set up incomplete. But I do irrationally resent people like Christopher Paolini, the author of the books on which this movie is based, who wrote the first one at 15 and at 23 has legions of fans for his (apparently rather crappy) fantasy trilogy. Not that I ever wrote a fantasy trilogy or even ever finished any substantial efforts at creative writing, but it still sort of makes me want to deck the guy. Wide release

Monday, December 11, 2006

Weekend viewing

Still dealing with the end-of-year crunch, including seeing a number of movies that won't open in Vegas until January, which I'll write about at that time if I can remember anything about them. It was like a little film festival at home this weekend without ever leaving my couch.

Bobby (Emilio Estevez, 2006)
With the huge pile of screeners sitting by my TV, this was one I was planning to give a pass, since it looked from all the reviews (both good and bad) and commercials like something I would not like, but fellow local critic and LVFCS president Jeff Howard implored me (it's his favorite movie of the year), so I gave it a shot. And it turned out pretty much as I expected. It's not horrible, and I suppose Estevez's heart is in the right place, but he really just threw together a bunch of one-dimensional 1960s-stereotype characters and placed them around an important historical event to make their interactions seem more meaningful than they really are. There's a lot of strident, capital-A Acting going on here, and Demi Moore, Sharon Stone and Helen Hunt are particularly egregious (meanwhile, Ashton Kutcher's performance as a hippie is expectedly but still notably awful). You never get a sense of who the characters are beyond the single trait they each have, nor do you get a sense of why Bobby Kennedy was so important or meaningful to Estevez and others who lived through that time. Maybe I'm just too cynical (I can't think of a single politician that I either like or admire), but even the real Kennedy speech that played over the final montage seemed boring and trite to me.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005)
Although Shut Up & Sing (see below) has been getting the bulk of the attention this year, and has a decent chance for an Oscar nomination, this is another very strong yet very different music documentary. Feuerzeig is lucky to have a wealth of home movies and recordings made by his subject, an acclaimed mentally ill singer-songwriter, so that he can depict Johnston's life thoroughly from the time he was about a teenager. And Johnston's story is fascinating, not only for how he battled through his illness to create music, but also for the weirdly serendipitous path that he took to relative fame and mild fortune. It's a visually inventive movie, too, which again owes much to the great abundance of primary sources that Feuerzeig is lucky enough to have - so much so that he paints a pretty effective portrait of his subject almost without any interview footage of him in the present day. I think the best indicator of the film's effectiveness is that I thought Johnston's music was absolutely awful, and yet I found the movie fascinating anyway.

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)
Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)
I did have to take a little break from all the award-mongers and watch something different, and these two came on a single disc from Netflix. I think it's probably unfortunate coming to these films (especially the first one) long after having seen Young Frankenstein, Gods and Monsters and countless updates and parodies over the years. I'm also a huge fan of Mary Shelley's novel, which is obviously only a broad template for these films (Bride has a hilarious prologue in which Lord Byron goes on to Shelley about all the horrifying events depicted in the first movie, events which of course did not take place at all in Shelley's novel). So Frankenstein, while it has wonderful use of shadow and some very striking set design, didn't do much for me, but Bride, which deviates even further from the novel (although it incorporates several important elements) was much more entertaining. It's obvious that Whale had much more freedom to be campy and outrageous, and a bigger budget, too (the sets are more striking and elaborate, the effects more convincing). The shrill maid to Henry and Elizabeth is very funny, as is the odd social satire of the tiny people created by Dr. Pretorius (a decidedly unscientific practice that would have been grossly out of place in Shelley's romantic-realist prose). The scene between the monster and the blind man, a sort of condensed version of one of the novel's most vivid and affecting sequences, is quite emotionally powerful, and the balance of humor and horror is deftly handled.

Shut Up & Sing (Barbara Kopple & Cecilia Peck, 2006)
I am a big fan of the Dixie Chicks, but I had a mixed reaction to their latest album, and I was sort of hard on them in a recent concert review. Like the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster, this movie goes a long way toward increasing my understanding and sympathy for the emotional and artistic turmoil that went into producing some music that I'm not necessarily crazy about (although I like the Dixie Chicks album more than the Metallica one, relative to each act's previous work). Kopple and Peck follow the Chicks through the political firestorm that followed singer Natalie Maines' comments about George Bush in 2003, the subsequent fallout, the writing and recording of their next album and the slow emergence into a new kind of career. But this is not just a political movie, as I feared, or really even a political movie at all; like SKOM, it's an intimate portrait of a close group of people who have such a symbiotic relationship that one small action taken by one of them can have huge and disastrous consequences for all. It conveys a real understanding of the band as people, and helped me regain respect for what they've done musically recently, even if I still can't completely embrace it.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

New comics 12/6

Agents of Atlas #5 (Jeff Parker/Leonard Kirk, Marvel)
The pacing on this series has become a little odd, as there's all sorts of down time this issue after the quick passage of time last issue in which the main mission seems slightly less than urgent. Parker also seems to be rewriting the back stories/origins of each of his characters, and not being familiar with them before this series, I can't say whether he's making any improvements, but it sort of seems like overkill. It's still a pretty fun superhero story, and Kirk's art remains lovely, but the steam is slowly running out at this point, and I'll be happy to see things wrap up next issue.

Desolation Jones #8 (Warren Ellis/Danijel Zezelj, DC/Wildstorm)
I can already see this arc headed in the direction of hopelessly incomprehensible like the last one, exacerbated by Zezelj's murky, moody art that makes it hard to distinguish between characters. But for now I can follow it, and it's a distinctly different mystery from the first one, so it's worth sticking with. It's also odd to me that one of Ellis' plot points is that people are investigating making a movie about Philip K. Dick's life like it's some sort of mysterious enigma, when in fact two such projects are actually in the works, with no shadowy deeds by ex-British spooks necessary.

Doctor Strange: The Oath #3 (Brian K. Vaughan/Marcos Martin, Marvel)
Vaughan, too, is doing some origin re-jiggering to come up with the villain for this story, and if I were a Doctor Strange fan maybe I'd know whether to be excited or outraged, but as it is I'm just sort of underwhelmed. Still not a bad story, and with cool Ditko-esque art from Martin, but this issue isn't as entertaining as the last two. Clearly it needs more Night Nurse.

The Exterminators #12 (Simon Oliver/Mike Hawthorne, DC/Vertigo)
The two-parter about Saloth concludes, and while it was interesting I'm not sure what exactly it contributed to the overall direction of the story. This book still seems directionless, but I still read it because Oliver's character writing is very good. Even if none of this comes up later, it was still a nice little story, almost Adrian Tomine-esque in its slice-of-life creepiness, and I still prefer the issues without the ill-defined mystical and/or sci-fi plots about the imminent insect revolution.

Newuniversal #1 (Warren Ellis/Salvador Larroca, Marvel)
Wrapping up a week of mild disappointment, Ellis' much-hyped reimagining of the New Universe reads...pretty much like Ellis on autopilot. Really, change a few superficial details and character names, and this could be any book that Ellis was churning out for Wildstorm a few years ago. He throws in his interest in alternate history (cf. Ministry of Space), his fondness for bizarre, unknowable alien life (cf. Ocean, Planetary, etc.) and a hot, snarky Asian woman (cf. Global Frequency), among other things, for a story that reads like a retread of ideas he had five years ago, and is very slow to boot. It really seemed like he'd moved past this stuff with Fell and Nextwave and the like. Larroca's new hyper-realistic style, which looks like it was colored directly from pencils, isn't nearly as distinctive as the way he used to draw, and contains some distracting celebrity photo-reference. He just comes off as a Greg Land ripoff. Despite all these complaints, I like these creators enough to give the series a few more issues, but otherwise I certainly wouldn't bother.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Movies opening this week

Apocalypto (Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Rodolfo Palacios, dir. Mel Gibson)
As pretty much every review has mentioned, probably the oddest thing about this movie is how conventional it is, a big action spectacle about a guy trying to save his wife and kids from the bad guys, except in ancient Mayan and starring people in loincloths. The advertising has made it out to be some arty, mysterious historical treatise, but it's really just a movie where a jaguar bites a dude's face off. And I think we can all get behind that. Although, the action doesn't really pick up until the second half, and it sort of fits uneasily with the social message that is rather ineffectively delivered. And I don't want to ruin the ending, but it seemed to me that you could easily interpret it as pro-imperialism, which is a little odd, even given Gibson's well-known views (not that I've seen that interpretation anywhere else yet). Wide release

Blood Diamond (Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly, dir. Edward Zwick)
I'm already sort of tired of talking about this movie, which is exactly the kind of feel-good, middlebrow, pandering faux-liberal crap that gets nominated for lots of Oscars. The members of the Las Vegas Film Critics Society are voting on our year-end awards next week, so there is heated email discussion of what's worth awarding, and far too many people think this movie is great. I've already argued it enough, so I'm just going to quote my own email: "I think DiCaprio's a great actor, but his accent was a little shaky, and the character of the white man who sacrifices himself for the greater good of the simple natives was already annoying the first time Zwick did it in The Last Samurai. Connelly I also generally like, but her character was completely unbelievable as a journalist and seemed to exist solely to make speeches and deliver exposition. The love story never clicked, either. And Hounsou, again, a good actor, but how many times must he play the soulful black man who teaches white people about life?" Wide release

Cocaine Cowboys (documentary, dir. Billy Corben)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
See, now this is a documentary about drug-running and murder, and yet it's amoral and willing to concede that crime can be cool and even have its social benefits. That's more like it. Opened limited Oct. 27; in Las Vegas this week

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Recent viewing

I'm behind on posting about this stuff because I'm so busy trying to catch up before end-of-year lists and awards, although I did find time to mix in a little variety with the catch-up.

Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006)
I found Iñárritu's last movie, 21 Grams, completely insufferable, despite the generally high praise it received, and this looked like more of the same hyper-seriousness and pretentious storytelling devices and condescending social commentary. But for the first hour or so, it was not bad. The jumbled chronology, unlike that in 21 Grams, makes a certain amount of sense, since it allows Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga to intercut between stories, and within each of the three narratives, the chronology is linear. So that didn't really bother me, and the stories themselves are at least somewhat interesting; the thread about the Japanese girl, as most reviews have mentioned, was the best, while Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett wailing in Morocco was probably the worst. But even that was tolerable for a while, at least until Iñárritu and Arriaga give in to their melodramatic impulses and each situation just gets more and more ridiculous, until by the end the characters have been tortured so much it's almost laughable. I like movies that are dark and bleak, but this is a movie that wants both to make you feel guilty and uplifted, and I just wasn't having it.

The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
Remarkably even-handed considering its provocative subject matter, and while it obviously offers at least a somewhat sympathetic portrait of terrorists, it doesn't shy away from showing the horrible things they do to innocent people. Really, no one in this film comes off well, and yet it's still really engaging, and seems to get away with a lot that a film made today about Islamic terrorists certainly would not. The vaunted documentary feel is not as authentic-seeming today, when there's greater technology available for street-level filmmaking, but it's still pretty visceral and raw.

Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee, 2003)
McElwee is a damn genius to make all the minutiae and musings of his daily life into such amazingly compelling, funny and touching cinema. I didn't know what to expect when I saw his first feature, Sherman's March, and it just totally blew me away with its completely honest and disarming tone and unique approach to filmmaking. I haven't seen any of the features that McElwee made between Sherman's March and Bright Leaves (they weren't available on DVD until recently), but it's obvious that each one just picks up on whatever's going on in his life and consuming his thoughts at the time. The first line of voiceover in this film is "So I had this dream..." and you know that you are immediately again in the presence of this great raconteur. McElwee seamlessly blends family history, an obscure Hollywood melodrama, his grief over the death of his father, North Carolina's conflicted relationship with tobacco, and his anxiety about his son growing up into a narrative that's entertaining and contemplative and easy to identify with. Sitting down with a McElwee film is like reading a really good memoir, and I definitely went right to Netflix to add his other newly available films to my queue.

For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, 2006)
I lowered my expectations greatly for this film after reading so many negative or lukewarm reviews, but even so it was disappointing how unfunny and ineffective it was. The Hollywood satire is obvious and outdated, and the realism (even amid absurdity) of Guest's earlier films is gone, replaced with cartoonish characters and situations that rarely radiate any sense of having real feelings or inner lives. The loss of the mockumentary format means that Guest's method of encouraging formless improvisation becomes a crutch, with scenes just sort of limping along without a beginning or end. With the pretense of documentary, moments like that make sense, but in a straightforward narrative they're just awkward. Worst of all, the movie just isn't funny, with tired bits and many members of Guest's repertory company playing variations on the same roles they've done several times now. I'm not sure where Guest goes from here to avoid completely running out of steam, but I think he needs to find a new approach if he's going to make anything nearly as clever or funny as Waiting for Guffman or Best in Show ever again.

Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006)
I initially dismissed this as yet another throwaway kiddie flick about talking animals that I was glad I didn't have to see, but a steady stream of very positive reviews that mentioned its surprisingly subversive nature and scant resemblance to the previews inspired me to give it a chance, and I sort of regret doing so. (I saw it in a theater on Thanksgiving with my family, probably the second movie I've paid to see this year, and of course got an awards screener a few days later.) It was definitely not entirely what the previews suggested, but I'm not sure that's a good thing - it starts as this typical fluff about acceptance and tolerance, and then turns into a sort of bleak adventure about the cast-out penguin before morphing again into a preachy story about environmentalism and then back into the big uplifting ending. I thought the environmental message was tacked-on and preachy, the pacing was off, and the standard kids' stuff was pretty boring. Some have complained about it being too scary and too sexually frank for kids, but that didn't bother me as much as it just being too confused about what kind of movie it was. The animation did look great, though.

An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006)
I realize that I railed against this movie when it first came out and vowed never to see it, but I felt like that was probably an unnecessarily stubborn attitude given that I had an awards screener sitting next to my TV, and I didn't have to go to a theater or pay money to see the movie. Plus, I've made an effort to see pretty much every other notable release this year, and regardless of my opinion on it, I can't deny that this is a notable movie. So, I watched it sort of begrudgingly, which is admittedly not the best way to come at any movie, but I think I can confidently say that this is grossly overrated as a movie and even as a social statement. Obviously it's a very rudimentary film, mostly just a video of Al Gore doing his standard lecture on global warming. For that it's certainly not worthy of a theatrical release, but on video or on TV it might not make a difference. But Guggenheim also cuts away periodically from the lecture to these canonizing segments on Gore's life and career that are so cheesy and heavy-handed that they almost undermine the serious social message by making Gore out to be a martyr to environmentalism. From watching this film, you'd get the idea that he's the only person in the world who knows and/or cares about global warming.

And then there's the message, which I will concede right away may very well be completely accurate. But it comes across in the first 10 minutes, and then Gore just spends the time going over the same things again and again. I'll save you the trouble of seeing the movie, if you haven't: Global warming is real, it's dangerous, it's caused by humans and it's reversible. There, you saved a rental fee. Go buy an energy-efficient lightbulb. (Incidentally, I still don't care about the potential reality of global warming and its effects on future generations. As far as I'm concerned, the entire planet can explode the minute after I'm gone, and that will be fine with me.)

Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)
Bette Davis is great as a woman with the most overbearing mother of all time in this thick melodrama with lots of wink-wink sexual innuendo. It's interesting that the great love story is between her and a married man, yet it's never portrayed as immoral. The movie's understanding of psychiatry is pretty ludicrous viewed from the present, but then again, so is the rest of it, and that's sort of the point.