Sunday, January 28, 2007

New comics 1/24

Criminal #4 (Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips, Marvel/Icon)
Brubaker complains in the text piece at the back about people criticizing the book for being cliched, or too familiar, saying that in crime fiction or noir, it's all about cliches and how you use them. I agree up to a point, and I find this an entertaining enough crime story, but I think to just brush off the notion of trying something new is perhaps a little cocky, thinking that your generic crime story will be worth reading just because you can tell it really well. I mean, Brubaker does tell the story well, just not as well as so many of the fawning online critics seem to think, or as well as he himself might want to believe. That said, this was a good issue with a nice cliffhanger, and I look forward to next month's resolution. But a year from now, will I remember much about this other than that it was a solid but familiar crime story? I doubt it.

Crossing Midnight #3 (Mike Carey/Jim Fern, DC/Vertigo)
When this book first started, I expressed dismay that I wasn't sure what it was about, or what its tone was meant to be, which are problems I've had with many recent Vertigo launches, but this issue makes it undeniably clear: This is a horror book, and a damn good one. The scene in this issue of the mom getting cut into many pieces (and then being stitched up again) is supremely creepy, and the whole tone is full of mounting dread, leading up to the heroine making the wrong, deadly decision. I don't know if that decision is meant for a status quo, or merely to set up the next arc, but even if I'm not sure where things are headed, I definitely want to follow them.

Fables #57 (Bill Willingham/Michael Allred, DC/Vertigo)
It's nice to see Bigby and Snow front and center here, and to mostly get away from the slowly building war with the Adversary. The story of Snow and Bigby's visit to the North Wind has some nice character development, and fleshes out the cubs a little, who've all been pretty interchangeable up to this point. The interlude with Pinocchio and Gepetto is a little jarring, although I guess in line with the father/son theme of this arc. The biggest problem is that Allred's depiction of Pinocchio is so different from the one we're used to that it's very distracting. Regular artist Mark Buckingham draws him like a pint-sized gangster, but Allred's Pinocchio looks like an actual little boy, and the disconnect between the dialogue and the image is disconcerting. Other than that, the art is very nice, and this is another strong issue.

Fallen Angel #12 (Peter David/J.K. Woodward, IDW)
More solid creepiness, with the Angel as only one of many characters with interesting stuff going on in this issue. Actually, she's more of a facilitator here, with Asia Minor and Jude getting the meat of the story. No theological pondering here, just good storytelling.

Noble Causes #26 (Jay Faerber/Tim Kane, Image)
Last issue's epic was sort of incoherent, and had me considering dropping the book, but this issue is a vast improvement. First, Kane's art is much better than the awful stuff Jon Bosco had been doing, and I'm glad that Bosco is off the title for good (it looks like Kane is only on for one issue, though, with Yildiray Cinar taking over next month). I guess I didn't realize how much Bosco's art bugged me, because the change made this a much more enjoyable read. I also liked the continuing rom-com-esque subplot of Slate and Zephyr being neighbors who don't know about each other's secret identities, and Liz's amnesia after last issue's confusing story was a good use of a soap opera staple. There are still too many subplots to keep track of, but otherwise this looks to be back on the right track for now.

X-Factor #15 (Peter David/Pablo Raimondi, Marvel)
I'm not sure what David is doing with all the psychology of Multiple Man stuff, but this was still a good issue with an innovative technique from Jamie for beating the bad guys, and a sort of oddly paced but interesting bonding story between Monet and Siryn that nicely illustrated their different approaches to problem-solving (and showed Monet for the cold, amoral person I've heard she was in other books). The Hydra stuff seems like it was wrapped up rather quickly, but I assume it'll play a role in a future storyline at some point.

Also out this week: The fourth issue of Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's Doctor Strange mini-series, which remains entertaining but unspectacular, and not quite up to Vaughan's usual standards.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Finishing Smith

After CBS yanked Smith from its schedule having only aired three episodes, they posted the remaing four episodes that had been produced on their website, and also for sale on iTunes and Amazon (they're no longer on the CBS website, but you can still get all seven episodes at iTunes and Amazon). I finally finished watching the four downloaded episodes this week, and it was sad to get to the end of the last one and realize there wouldn't be any more. (There are synopses of the next five unproduced episodes here, containing some pretty shocking developments - obviously they knew to end the show by episode twelve - but it's not quite the same thing.) After being totally blown away by the Smith pilot, with its lavish production values, brisk, hard-boiled tone and unsentimental characterization, I found the next two episodes a little disappointing, settling into a somewhat conventional rhythm of the team accomplishing one incremental goal per episode, and also introducing some boring and cliched cop characters to chase our band of outlaws.

The first of the unaired episodes left me with the same impression, and I was prepared to watch through to the end of a series that, while thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing, never quite lived up to the promise of its pilot. But by episodes five and six, that old tartness and bravado from the pilot started to come back, resulting in two quietly stunning bits of television, leavened by a slightly less impressive seventh episode. Episode five finds the crew, having stolen a shipment of gold bars, betrayed by their buyer and left holding property they can't get rid of. The way they treat their wounded betrayer and argue amongst themselves about what to do with the gold shows just how deeply ruthless and amoral these characters really are, and it's chilling and fascinating.

Episode six is a "down time" episode, with the characters scattering and tending to their own personal affairs, but it's just as powerful and just as effective at illuminating each person's flaws and ambitions. Watching Tom (Jonny Lee Miller) and Jeff (Simon Baker) stalk and ruthlessly kill a man out for revenge against Jeff, you root for them to succeed, even as you know (as do they, as they acknowledge ruefully) that they are entirely in the wrong. All the acting on the show was outstanding, making these heartless characters fascinating people even as they are completely reprehensible, but the stand-out had to be Amy Smart as Annie, delivering so many layers of deviousness under her sweet but menacing exterior. Of course, these episodes prove that this show was doomed on CBS, but that didn't make it any less heartbreaking to imagine how it might have flourished on FX or Showtime.

Movies opening this week

Blood and Chocolate (Agnes Bruckner, Hugh Dancy, Olivier Martinez, Bryan Dick, dir. Katja von Garnier) 
I had no reason to see this movie - it was screened too late for print reviews, and I am on vacation so I didn't do my weekly radio appearance, either, where they usually like to talk about any horror movie, no matter how lame. And yet I left my house and went to a screening anyway, knowing it would be a bad movie, because I am a sucker for anything about werewolves and/or vampires. Advertised as "from the producers of Underworld," this is, needless to say, a bad movie. It's based on a young-adult novel to which it apparently bears only a passing resemblance (and which sounds like a much more interesting story), and is basically a cheesy Romeo and Juliet riff, with werewolves. The effects are weak, the dialogue is lame and the action is boring, but I admit that there was a bit of light campiness to it, and I sort of had fun. Bruckner was quite good in the little-seen indie Blue Car, and I keep waiting for her to get another role that shows off her talents. This one isn't it. Wide release

Notes on a Scandal (Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson, dir. Richard Eyre)
Thanks to its somewhat surprising number of Oscar nominations, this movie is getting renewed attention and a wide release. And...I really have nothing to say about it. It's not just that it's been a month or so since I saw it; this movie just inspired no reaction in me whatsoever. It's reasonably well-acted, and sometimes engaging, but not nearly as nasty or bitingly insightful as it thinks it is. Yet it's also not as calculatedly unpleasant as screenwriter Patrick Marber's last film, Closer. It has moments of devilish charm, mostly when Dench gets down to her most snide and evil. Otherwise, it's entirely forgettable, but it's got enough prestige on the surface to get the Academy to notice; I doubt very many other people will. Opened limited Dec. 27; wide release this week

Smokin' Aces (Ryan Reynolds, Jeremy Piven, Alicia Keys, Ray Liotta, dir. Joe Carnahan)
I guess I should know better than to expect anything different during the dregs of January, but between this and The Hitcher, I feel like I've already seen two of the worst movies of 2007. It's sad that Carnahan stuffed so many stars and so many annoyingly flashy production tricks into such an empty, distasteful, entirely repugnant film after making the gritty and genuine crime drama Narc back in 2002. This is almost the exact opposite of Narc: It's completely over-the-top and bears no resemblance to reality; it's got tons of characters, none of whom are believable; and its action and violence are completely devoid of meaning or effect. Usually I'm all for gratuitous violence, but the violence in this movie is so excessive, so punishing, so cynical and so mean-spirited that I actually felt like Carnahan must hate his characters and his audience to put them through this. The fact that it's treated glibly as fun and humorous is bad enough, but what's even worse is when Carnahan turns on a dime and pulls out the bullshit pathos to try and pull on your heartstrings. The monumentally stupid epilogue is some of the most crass, incoherent and insulting storytelling I've ever seen in a movie, narrated by Andy Garcia in some ridiculous Southern-ish accent, and topped off by Ryan Reynolds shedding tears of regret. What an utter piece of shit. Wide release

Tideland (Jodelle Ferland, Jeff Bridges, Janet McTeer, Brendan Fletcher, dir. Terry Gilliam)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I never expected this movie to open in Vegas (which is why I wrote about it here back when I first watched it), but thanks to the efforts of the people at CineVegas, it has, and even though my review and most others were bad, I'm glad that something so daring and uncompromising made it here. Other than that, I can't add anything to what I've already written, two different times now. Opened limited Oct. 27; in Las Vegas this week

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Oscar nominations

Since I'm on vacation and keeping my preferred, odd hours while I sit around watching movies and catching up on TV, I was actually still up yesterday when the Oscar nominations were announced at 5:30 a.m. Pacific time. I find it hard to muster up much enthusiasm for talking about things that were mostly forgone conclusions for months now, and, as in the past, I have no desire to chastise the Academy for perceived mistakes, because these things are what they are and no amount of complaining will change that. Instead, I'd like to highlight the positive and point out what, to me, are some of the best, most interesting nominations:

- Peter O'Toole for Best Actor for Venus. He's cranky and disrespectful of the Academy, he turned down an honorary Oscar because he wanted to win a competitive one, and he played a dirty old man hilariously and poignantly in this movie that no one saw. He won't win, but this affords him the chance to say snide things on TV and brings more attention to the worthwhile film, so I'm all for it.

- Monster House for Best Animated Feature. Yeah, I would have rather seen A Scanner Darkly on this list, but given that it could easily have been Over the Hedge or Ice Age: The Meltdown nominated alongside Cars and Happy Feet, it's nice to see a movie that's about more than distracting celebrity voiceovers and anthropomorphic animals end up nominated in this category. Beyond having a creative look and something interesting to say about the difficult transition into puberty, this is just a good, entertaining, well-made movie, and stands head and shoulders above the token Pixar nominee and the overrated liberal-guilting of Happy Feet. Of course, it has no chance of winning.

- Pretty much the entire Best Cinematography category. Not a single Best Picture nominee ended up in this category, which is odd, but overlooked films like The Black Dahlia, The Prestige and Children of Men (which will and should win) did. If these films can't get recognition elsewhere, at least their technical achievements can garner some notice.

- Thomas Newman for Best Original Score for The Good German. I have long since accepted being in a minority of one on this movie, which thanks to bad reviews and even worse box office probably won't even be opening in Vegas (it was pulled from its January 19 release date and has not been rescheduled). But even if you think of this film as a film-school exercise and a failure, Newman's score still captures the feel and sound of old noir films perfectly, and I'm happy to see it recognized.

- Three nominations for Children of Men. I'm not completely on the Children of Men bandwagon, as I've said previously, but it's still original and innovative and more interesting than most of the rest of the stuff nominated for major awards, so I applaud the nominations for the excellent cinematography, the editing and the screenplay. It's small consolation to the people who think this is the best movie of the last decade, but it's something.

Monday, January 22, 2007

New comics 1/17

Cable & Deadpool #36 (Fabian Nicieza/Reilly Brown, Marvel)
I'm glad to see that Deadpool's quest for redemption isn't going to be some serious, epic tale. Instead, this issue is full of jokes and quips and the breaking of the fourth wall. Cable doesn't even show up at all, given how busy he is in other books, so this is just a big fight sequence for Deadpool setting up another fight sequence in the next issue. It's light and fun and very entertaining, just what this book does best.

She-Hulk #15 (Dan Slott/Rick Burchett, Marvel)
Despite Slott's assurances that this latest arc would be very serious, there's still plenty of the book's trademark humor here, which is good, because it'd be a shame to lose it. It's a little disappointing to see She-Hulk away from the law firm and into a more conventional superhero story, but Slott does well to show how she fits in with the Marvel universe as a whole, and the character development toward the end is promising. I hope we'll see some of the old supporting cast again soon, but for now this is a nice change of pace, and not as drastic as I had feared.

Y the Last Man #53 (Brian K. Vaughan/Goran Sudzuka, DC/Vertigo)
Yet another stand-alone vignette, with a very minor character that I'm not even certain has shown up before (if so, it was a while ago). Unlike the origin sidebars, which felt like pointless tangents to me, this tells an interesting and novel story about one of the elements of the gendercide while maintaining a connection to the main narrative. An odd diversion so close to the series' conclusion, maybe, but a welcome one.

Notes from last week: My shop was sold out of the Warren Ellis debut issue of Thunderbolts, so I probably won't pick it up unless there's a second printing. Ellis' straight-faced superhero work doesn't usually do much for me, anyway. The second issue of the Peter David Wonder Man series still has atrocious art, a baffling sequence set in the future and an odd tonal imbalance, but something makes me curious to see where it's all going, so I reserve the right to buy the rest of it anyway and continue to complain.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Movies opening this week

Late once again. That'll teach me to go out and do things on Friday nights. 

Come Early Morning (Ashley Judd, Scott Wilson, Jeffrey Donovan, Laura Prepon, dir. Joey Lauren Adams) 
I didn't have much in the way of expectations going into this movie; it seemed like a typical indie drama, and Adams is decent but sometimes annoying as an actress. But even though some of it was a little too typical of indie dramas, most of it was not, and anything that could have been contrived or obvious was understated in a very affecting, natural way. This isn't a life-changing movie, but it's a good, honest character study with nice performances (as I mentioned last week, had I seen this earlier, Judd would have been on my list for best actresses of the year). At this point, I will be much more interested in Adams' next movie as a director than as an actress. Opened limited Nov. 10; in Las Vegas this week

The Hitcher (Sophia Bush, Sean Bean, Zachary Knighton, dir. Sean Bean) 
Even by the low standards of cynical horror remakes, this is pretty awful. I haven't seen the original, so I can't say how this one stacks up, but my guess is pretty poorly. Nothing in this movie makes any sense - the heroes consistently do the stupidest possible thing at every moment, the villain is seemingly omnipotent and omniscient and yet has not motivation or reason for existing - and the scares are all cheap shocks. The main characters are so whiny and annoying that after 10 minutes I was rooting for the villain to kill them. The direction is showy and distracting, and exhibits the influence from producer Michael Bay by including pointless explosions and car crashes. Definitely a likely candidate for a list of the worst movies of 2007. Wide release

The Last King of Scotland (Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, dir. Kevin Macdonald) 
I saw this movie back in October and wrote the review as it was set to open in Vegas. It got pulled at the last minute and not rescheduled, so I figured it was one of those smaller movies that didn't have enough success to open in Vegas and would just disappear (this happens from time to time here). But thanks to all the awards attention for Whitaker, Fox Searchlight is giving the movie a renewed push, so here it is. Whitaker deserves all his accolades, although the movie itself is merely satisfactory, and could have bypassed Vegas back in October and headed straight to DVD without anyone really losing out. Opened limited Sept. 27; in Las Vegas this week

Letters from Iwo Jima (Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, dir. Clint Eastwood) 
Flags of Our Fathers left me rather cold, but, as has been noted by many others, this is a much stronger movie, even though it too has its moments of ham-handed sentimentality. I don't think, however, that the quality of this film really enriches Flags of Our Fathers in some way; they are related, yes, but stand on their own, and it's not like you can see something here that allows you to discover some nuances in Flags that you didn't see at first. Obviously, telling both sides of this story is a grand cinematic project, and it is worthwhile to see both films together. But, just as a good sequel can't really improve a mediocre predecessor, this film can't make its companion anything other than what it is. That's all really a side conversation, though, as the other film isn't relevant to the fact that this is a very good war movie, focused on the toll a futile battle takes on the average soldiers who have no choice but to fight it. There is actually very little aboveground battle action in this film, but instead a lot about the scared and confused soldiers waiting for the mysterious enemy to root them out. By narrowing the focus, showing the build-up and then the battle with only sparse flashbacks, Eastwood gives this film a more immediate power than Flags had. The sentimental moments can be a little much, but they are minimal and outweighed by the clear-eyed, sober depiction of the absurdities of warfare. Opened limited Dec. 20; in Las Vegas this week

Lunacy (Pavel Liska, Jan Triska, Anna Geislerova, dir. Jan Svankmajer) 
When I saw this at CineVegas over the summer, it seemed way too indulgent and messy, although I like the ideas behind it and the sheer bizarreness of the narrative and the cool stop-motion meat segments. Actually, a short film compiling all those segments probably would have been pretty cool. Even though it didn't quite work for me, this sold out two showings at CineVegas, and I have a co-worker who went to both and is planning to see it again this week. Svankmajer is a surrealist legend, and I do have his fascinating-sounding Little Otik in my Netflix queue somewhere, so I'm open to seeing what else he has to offer. Opened limited Aug. 9; in Las Vegas this week

Pan's Labyrinth (Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Ariadna Gil, dir. Guillermo Del Toro) 
Del Toro is a director whose works always sound appealing to me but then usually leave me sort of underwhelmed. This is definitely my favorite of his films, and it seems to distill all that was interesting about his previous work into one very effective story. The images are grotesquely beautiful, and the elegy for lost childhood innocence is rather heartbreaking. Even though the real-world villain (Ofelia's evil stepfather) is too cartoonish to be a convincing representative of the real military during the Spanish Civil War, he works as a symbol of that same system, and fairy tales are all about symbolism anyway. Even though things seem to be neatly divided into fantasy and "real" worlds, really the entire thing is a fairy tale, and the ending is a reminder that things we perceive of as fantasy can become devastatingly real, and things that are real can often easily corrupt our fantasies. Opened limited Dec. 29; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, January 15, 2007

My indie film weekend

For people who complain about the lack of culture in Las Vegas, this weekend was a great example of how far the development of film culture has come here in the last few years. On Friday night, I went over to the Tropicana Cinemas to see Bobcat Goldthwait's Sleeping Dogs Lie, part of the debut week of CineVegas' new Arthouse Screening Series. There weren't all that many people at the showing I attended - probably 10 at most, although it was the final show of the evening, and the second for which Goldthwait showed up to do a Q&A. It did look like there were more people coming out of the previous showing as we waited for the doors to open. So maybe the turnout for this event is small right now (friends who went to see Sherrybaby earlier that evening said there were only six people in the theater), but the fact that it exists at all is a huge step for alternative film in Vegas, and I have hope that the management of the Tropicana is willing to stick with these films beyond the initial tryout period of four weeks as awareness and (hopefully) attendance grows.

As for the movie itself, it was funny and sweet, although certainly rough around the edges from a technical perspective. Goldthwait is a good writer but maybe a shaky director - the camera work was rudimentary and the lighting often harsh and unflattering. And while Melinda Page Hamilton was very good in the lead role of a woman whose life falls apart when she reveals her past dalliance with bestiality to her family, some of the other actors (particularly Bryce Johnson as her fiancé) were less effective. But Goldthwait gets credit for taking on a taboo subject with humor and an open mind, even if I wasn't all that crazy about the film's ultimate message (that it's better to lie about some things to our loved ones to avoid hurting them and to inspire ourselves to live up to the images we create). At least he's got a point of view to go along with the dog-blowing jokes. And he was humble and grateful and very friendly in the conversation afterward, thanking the whole small crowd for showing up and talking about the ups and downs of no-budget filmmaking.

On Saturday and Sunday I went to the Cinemark/Century 16 at the Suncoast and saw two movies at the Las Vegas Celebration of Jewish Film, a festival now in its sixth year that not all that many people in Vegas know about. The organizers do a great job of marketing to the Jewish community, having each film sponsored by a different local Jewish group, and thus the attendance is strong, but I don't think many film fans outside of that community are aware of the festival and the fact that it brings interesting and diverse movies to Vegas that are worth seeing by anyone with an interest in film. I saw Live and Become, which has no distribution in the U.S. at the moment, and The Syrian Bride, a popular Israeli film that is available here on DVD. Both were good but flawed explorations of the consequences of complex Mideast politics, taking big, contentious issues and filtering them through the perspectives of everyday people.

Live and Become, about a Christian Ethiopian boy who passes himself off as a Jew so that he can seek asylum in Israel along with other Ethiopian Jews, was very powerful in its first hour, with the boy as a 9-year-old trying to adjust to life in this incredibly foreign land while hiding his identity. But director and co-writer Radu Mihaileanu wants to encompass the entire story of the Ethiopian Jews with the film, and thus spans 15 years in the life of the main character, watching him grow up, finish school and get married. The film takes on more than it can handle, and the developments in the second half often feel rushed and sort of contrived. Still, the scope is admirable and many of the moments are quite powerful.

The Syrian Bride is broader and more mainstream, with a lot of soap opera in its story of a sprawling Druze family coming together for the marriage of their daughter/sister/aunt to a Syrian actor. In this case, I actually found the final third, after the wedding celebration and all of the soapy family drama, more interesting, as the family deals with the complex and surreal bureaucracy that surrounds the relationship between Syria and Israel and their competing claims on the Golan Heights. The family dynamics were familiar from countless other movies, but combined with the political absurdities, they made for something new, at least for parts of the film.

Even if I didn't love any of these films, simply the opportunity to see them (as well as other films in the CineVegas series and at the Jewish Film Festival) is cause for celebration, and evidence that Vegas actually has a quietly thriving alternative film scene if you know where to look. I hope I can do my best to point people in that direction.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

New comics catch-up

An avalanche of work kept me from posting this past week, plus shipping delays have kept some comics away from my local store. So here's a round-up of some of the notable releases of the last three weeks, plus brief notes on the rest. Certainly I am nothing if not thorough.

From 1/10:

Agents of Atlas #6 (Jeff Parker/Leonard Kirk, Marvel)
Once again, I had never read anything about these characters before this series, but I find Parker's massive retconning really off-putting, especially in this issue as he turns the team's longtime adversary into a retroactive ally from his first appearance, and makes everything they ever did into some big overarching storyline. It's a pointless continuity rewrite, and really makes it seem like Parker couldn't just allow these characters to move forward with a new story. I get that Yellow Claw is a rather racist character, and a certain rehabilitation of that image is fine, but I feel like this story does nothing more than the worst kind of retcon - invalidating what's happened before without adding any new value. Plus it's not very exciting. I liked this series a lot at first, but the second half just fell apart for me, despite the still-excellent art from Kirk. I'm glad it's over, and no longer hoping for it to launch as an ongoing.

Runaways #23 (Brian K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona, Marvel)
Okay, so the cliffhanger at the end of the last issue turns out to be sort of a contrived misdirection, but otherwise this is a very good issue exploring Chase's self-destructive tendencies while also getting in some good character moments for Karolina, Xavin and Molly. It seems like there's so much more for Vaughan to explore with these characters, and it's a shame he's only got one more issue to do it. But the end of this one sets up a big climax, which I'm sure will be quite satisfying.

Also out 1/10: The second issue of the Peter David-written Wonder Man mini, which didn't ship locally. Despite the dodgy art and so-so plot of the first issue, I do plan to give this one more shot and pick this issue up next week. Also, the Warren Ellis-relaunch issue of Thunderbolts, which doesn't really grab me conceptually, but which I had planned to pick up for Ellis' involvement, just to give it a try. If it shipped here, I missed it, but I will probably also check it out next week.

From 1/4:

Newuniversal #2 (Warren Ellis/Salvador Larroca, Marvel)
I'm still not too impressed with this book. This issue, we get the shadowy government agency that wants to kill the new superheroes, and the weird in-betweeny dimension that's just like Ellis' old Wildstorm concept, The Bleed (which Wildstorm still uses). There's too much going on to get to know the characters very well, not that they seem all that worth getting to know at this point. And the art is still full of distracting celebrity photo-references. I still want to give Ellis the benefit of the doubt, so I'll stick with it for now, but if it were anyone else I would have given up already.

Scalped #1 (Jason Aaron/R.M. Guera, DC/Vertigo)
Aaron is the new Vertigo sensation thanks to his work on the Vietnam War mini The Other Side, of which I read the first issue and wasn't all that impressed. This is his hyped new ongoing, with a concept that interested me more than the umpteenth Vietnam War story: It's a crime drama set on an Indian reservation. Disappointingly, the first issue is sort of contrived and full of crime cliches, and trying too hard to seem cool. Also, Guera's murky art doesn't really suit the realistic tone; I couldn't tell until she was identified as such whether the main character's mother was meant to be the same age as he was, for example. So, a disappointment overall, although there was a semi-intriguing twist at the end that might get me to pick up the next issue to see if it does anything with the tweaked concept that it sets up.

Also out 1/4: Solid new issues of The Exterminators, Powers and Savage Dragon. Exterminators takes yet another new turn that seems to be moving further away from what it might be about, but it was interesting so I'll see where it leads. Powers continues its resurgence with some cool developments in the latest storyline, and Dragon gets back to beating people up, with a minimum of headache-inducing discussions about convoluted continuity.

From 12/28:

Crossing Midnight #2 (Mike Carey/Jim Fern, DC/Vertigo)
I was lukewarm on the first issue of this series, worried that it would suffer from the lack of direction that most recent Vertigo launches have experienced, but this issue fully piqued my interest, more than any new Vertigo series since Y and Fables. I'm still unsure of the overall direction, but there is a lot going on here, with the plot moving forward at a steady pace and some very creepy goings-on. I also really like Fern's simple, evocative art. It seems to me that what appeared to be the driving force of the book will be wrapped up by the end of the first storyline, so I don't know what the long-term plan is, but for now I'm definitely on board.

Jack of Fables #6 (Bill Willingham & Matthew Sturges/Steve Leialoha, DC/Vertigo)
A new storyline starts, with Jack still on the run from his captors and recounting a story from his past. Once again, this feels like something that didn't need its own series to tell, but it's a fun little flashback story and the art from Leialoha, who's the regular inker on the main book, is not surprisingly reminiscent of Mark Buckingham's, although with its own, slightly more cartoony, style.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Movies opening this week

Alpha Dog (Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Anton Yelchin, Ben Foster, dir. Nick Cassavetes)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This is a really frustrating movie, because the true story that it's based on is actually quite interesting, and Cassavetes seems to have something worthwhile to say about it, which occasionally comes through. But he's unfortunately more interested in distracting split-screen effects and his lame device of "interviews" with characters from four years after the main events of the movie (which gives us Sharon Stone in an unbelievably hideous fat suit). At the screening I went to, the audience laughed every time Timberlake opened his mouth for at least the first half-hour of the movie, and subsequently laughed at a bunch of things that weren't meant to be funny. This movie is like the tough guy making all sorts of threats who doesn't know how ridiculous he really is. Wide release

Candy (Heath Ledger, Abbie Cornish, Geoffrey Rush, dir. Neil Armfield)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This isn't exactly the big follow-up to Brokeback Mountain that you'd expect from Ledger, although he's quite good in it. Actually, I'm surprised this movie hasn't gotten more attention - it's mediocre, but Ledger has a high profile now, and Cornish is an up-and-coming star (and is good here as well). Maybe the subject matter is too much of a downer, or the reviews aren't strong enough. Oh well - no one is missing much here, although both actors should continue to do strong work in the future. Opened limited Nov. 17; in Las Vegas this week

The Painted Veil (Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Toby Jones, Liev Schreiber, dir. John Curran)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I was surprised at how much I liked this movie. These prestige period pieces are usually really boring, but even though this had the standard classy scenery and costume design and upper-crust accents, I thought there was a lot to it, and Watts' excellent performance elevated the movie beyond its potential to be boring and overly restrained. If I had seen this before voting on year-end awards, I would definitely have added Watts to my Best Actress list (along with Ashley Judd in Come Early Morning, which I saw yesterday and which opens in Vegas next week), and I might even have put this movie near the bottom of my top 10. Individual elements don't always seem that powerful, but it all adds up to something rather moving. Opened limited Dec. 29; in Las Vegas this week

Also opening this week: CineVegas starts programming its indie-film series at the Tropicana Cinemas, which I wrote about in LVW here. I really hope people check these screenings out and support interesting movies in Vegas (more info is here). I haven't yet seen this week's openings - I'm going to one of the showings tonight of Sleeping Dogs Lie with Bobcat Goldthwait in attendance for a Q&A, and I've got a screener of Sherrybaby at home that I plan to watch. I'm excited about virtually everything else they've got coming up in this series, so I'd love to see it succeed and continue.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Movies opening this week

Unavoidably late, although I actually saw three of these movies weeks ago.

Children of Men (Clive Owen, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julianne Moore, dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
I had an odd experience with this movie: I was really excited about seeing it based on the previews, the premise and the talent involved; then I saw it about a month ago and was very disappointed, and sort of put it out of my mind; and several weeks later I started reading all these incredibly glowing reviews that made me feel like I had missed something and I ought to see it again. There wasn't another press screening before the release in Vegas, so I haven't gotten to see it again yet. But every positive thing I read about this film makes it sound like something I would really like, so I do wonder if I would appreciate it more a second time. As of my one viewing, I found the visual style rather striking (not only the long-take action set pieces, but also the production design, the costumes - all of it combined for a very satisfying aesthetic experience) and the future world very well-realized. I like sci-fi films that don't feel the need to spell out every detail of how things got the way they are, but allow you to form your own conclusions based on background details, and simply leave some things to the imagination. But plot-wise this movie was lacking for me - the chase was without real urgency and the message rather sappy ultimately. I didn't buy the political awakening of Clive Owen's character; actually, I found it sort of annoying. Plus, maybe it's wrong of me, but I find a world devoid of children sort of appealing. Prediction: I will not actually see this movie again. Opened limited Dec. 25; wide release this week

Freedom Writers (Hilary Swank, April Lee Hernandez, Mario, Patrick Dempsey, dir. Richard LaGravenese)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm a little surprised at the relatively positive reaction to this movie, which to me was about as square, boring, predictable and naive as they come. I sort of wanted to slap the Hilary Swank character for being so saintly, especially in the scene that basically vilifies her husband for daring to question her unhealthy devotion to her students at the expense of her marriage. My mom (a big Grey's Anatomy fan) got all excited that Dempsey was in this movie, and I had to tell her that McDreamy does essentially McNothing here. Wide release

Little Children (Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley, dir. Tood Field)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I remember being sort of indifferent to Field's first film, In the Bedroom, and I feel similarly here. The review is fairly negative, but I thought there were some positive aspects to the film, and overall I wasn't able to hate it with quite the passion of Jeannette Catsoulis, say. Much praise has gone to Haley's performance, but Noah Emmerich is just as good as the intense unemployed local man who makes it his mission to punish Haley's pedophile. There's some strong acting and some decent visuals, but the tone is too moralistic and condescending, and the characters are flat no matter how much the actors bring to them. Not one of the worst movies of the year, but certainly not worth its recent surge in praise and awards nominations. Opened limited Oct. 17; in Las Vegas this week

Perfume: The Story of a Murder (Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Dustin Hoffman, dir. Tom Tykwer)
I've found just about all of Tykwer's movies since the bracing Run Lola Run sort of soporific and indulgent. The Princess and the Warrior was tedious and overlong; Heaven was ponderous and forgettable. And I can't quite get into this either, although I will say it grabbed my attention more readily than those two others. It's got an odd pacing that breaks the story up into several segments with wildly divergent tones; I thoroughly enjoyed the parts with Dustin Hoffman hamming it up as an old perfume-maker, but the dark and bizarre final third didn't work for me. Still, it's a unique and memorable film, and any movie with a gigantic orgy can't be all bad. Opened limited Dec. 27; in Las Vegas this week

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Best of 2006: Movies

I know that people are probably sick to death of top 10 lists at this point (and if you are, check out The Reeler's gleeful evisceration of lists and the people who make them), and this already ran in shorter form in Las Vegas Weekly, but I do have that undeniable critical desire to put a capper on the year, and to elaborate more than I was able to in the Weekly. Some of my picks have been on numerous lists and praised extensively, but others are a little less acclaimed and deserve wider recognition. Last year, I resolved to see more films, and I did make a concerted effort late in the year to catch up on things that I had missed via DVD. Thus, I saw about 150 movies that were released theatrically in 2006, up about 10 from last year (which doesn't seem like that much, but represents a not-insubstantial effort). Naturally, things passed me by, but I feel pretty confident in this list as representative of the year as I saw it. Links are to my original reviews, where applicable.

1. The Science of Sleep
Last week, I did an appearance on local radio station KNEWS, going over the year in film, and I went on and on about how great this movie was, about its heady depiction of romance, its manic visual sense and innovative, non-CGI effects, its universal story about trying to find love, its humor, its warmth, its creativity, and as I finished this whole spiel, all the host says is, "What was that title again?" Obviously not a lot of mainstream audiences made it to this film, despite the general high awareness of Michel Gondry's last movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I think this deals with many of the same themes and emotions as that film did, although in a more dream-like, impressionistic way. Reviews were good - although not universally so - but I've seen the film on few top 10 lists. It's definitely worth another look when it's out on DVD February 6.

2. A Scanner Darkly
I'm surprised not to see this as a stronger favorite for best animated film awards, since it does far more with the form than movies like Flushed Away, Cars or Happy Feet (which have been getting the bulk of the praise). Richard Linklater's forever-in-the-works adaptation of Philip K. Dick's classic sci-fi novel is surreal, funny and prescient, and the jittery animation style perfectly complements the paranoid tone. It manages to be trippy without losing its central narrative thrust, and Robert Downey Jr. continues a string of great comeback performances. Another one worth a second look on DVD.

3. The Black Dahlia
I realize that I will convince no one that this is a great movie if they don't already think so. But for all the critical drubbing that this film took (and it took plenty), I find it hard to believe that even the most staunch opponents of Brian De Palma's over-the-top storytelling or some of the more questionable acting choices from Hilary Swank, Fiona Shaw and Josh Hartnett couldn't find some pure cinematic enjoyment in De Palma's swooping crane shots, or the lush, evocative set design, or the meta-creepiness of De Palma himself egging on Mia Kirshner as Betty Short to be more vulnerable, more raw. It's a movie of endless sensual pleasures, whatever you think of it otherwise. (One such pleasure, image via Keith Uhlich.)

4. Dreamgirls
As I've mentioned before, it surprises me how tepid the critical reaction to this movie has been. I find Oscar handicapping rather tiresome, but I'm sort of glad that this movie's alleged frontrunner status has cooled off a bit, and I actually kind of hope it doesn't win a ton of awards, because that would only intensify the backlash that I think is undeserved. This is a big, broad, unsubtle spectacle, but it's incredibly satisfying and successful at that, and just a pure pleasure to watch. I feel no shame about saying that it's one of the best movies of the year.

5. The Puffy Chair
I was lucky to see this movie at CineVegas, which is the only time it played theatrically in Vegas. With all the praise given to Andrew Bujalski (deserved, as far as I'm concerned, although I've only seen Funny Ha Ha and not Mutual Appreciation), the Duplass brothers here do many of the same things, capturing the rambling, often very funny self-absorption of arrested-development twentysomethings in a naturalistic, immediate way. Yes, this film has more structure and more actual jokes than a Bujalski movie, but its core is just as honest. And these are the guys who could clearly, with a little more money, bring that honesty to the mainstream. They certainly deserve the chance.

6. The Good German
Like The Black Dahlia, this is another stylish tribute to noir that has gotten overwhelmingly bad reviews, and even lacks the dedicated core of defenders that De Palma's movie has. While I can understand some of the criticism that this is more of an exercise than a film, I think it's a really successful exercise, and that the writing and acting is actually quite sharp, and that Steven Soderbergh does use the rigorous formalism to make an interesting statement, even if it takes a back seat to the style. I'm sure I'll elaborate further in my review once I see it again; it opens in Vegas on January 19.

7. Unknown White Male
I was sort of surprised not to see this on many lists of the best documentaries of the year; I suppose that political documentaries have really overshadowed personal ones. But this is such an amazing and heartbreaking story (so much so that some people have accused it of being a hoax), and Rupert Murray takes the great material and shapes into something as moving as any fiction film this year. I didn't see any of the Iraq-war documentaries this year that people have been raving about (most didn't play Vegas, but I've also not exactly been rushing to add them to my Netflix queue), and maybe my fatigue with that issue keeps me from some good films, but this is easily as good as any politically-minded nonfiction film that I've seen recently.

8. Inside Man
With all the attention that United 93 and World Trade Center have gotten this year, it's a shame that more people haven't pointed to the way that Spike Lee incorporated 9/11 more indirectly and organically into two of his recent fiction films, this one and 25th Hour. Lots has been written about how this is a great heist thriller - and it is - but I think just as valuable is the way that it reflects a subtly changed world. Confronting something as monumental as 9/11 head-on is important, and I hope that this year's two high-profile examples aren't the last to tackle that for a while. But exploring all aspects of life after such a significant event is important, too. Also, badass heist movies are cool.

9. Thank You for Smoking
There was a time after this movie came out that I was conflicted as to whether it was clever satire or just empty posturing, and I have to say at this point that I don't care. This is the best libertarian comedy of the year, possibly of all time; it's cynical and sharp and contributes nothing to the betterment of the world, and for that I love it.

10. V for Vendetta
I will say that in most other years this would not have made my list, since its political conscience is undoubtedly conflicted and its action is a little pedestrian. But having the courage to get even half of Alan Moore's radical political notions from the V graphic novel is noteworthy, and just because the film doesn't advocate outright anarchy doesn't mean it isn't making a provocative statement. You can side with Moore and get pissy about the comics not being transferred verbatim to the screen, or you can just appreciate an exciting action movie with some indelible images and a pretty bold political message.

And, without comment and in no particular order, my least favorite movies of 2006: Hoodwinked, The Dead Girl, Strangers With Candy, The Devil Wears Prada, Lady in the Water, Flyboys

TV premiering tonight: The Knights of Prosperity

This is another pilot I saw way back in August before the season began, and my memories of it are a little fuzzy. The one thing I most clearly recall, though, is disappointment. This was one of the pilots I was most looking forward to, with its clever concept (following a group of loser friends as they ineptly plot to rob Mick Jagger), good pedigree (from David Letterman's Worldwide Pants, also responsible for Ed) and glowing early reviews. But I checked it out and I don't remember laughing once. The characters were one-dimensional and annoying, the jokes obvious and in-your-face, and the concept already tiresome after one episode. I don't expect the storytelling complexity of Lost or 24, but I can't imagine they're going to sustain even the semblance of a longform narrative with this over any period of time. They'd have been better off just going with a straightforward show about a group of loser friends (which, actually, is what the producers have indicated this will essentially be).

So I don't understand all the accolades for this show, nor do I see it succeeding as part of ABC's new lineup of ultra-bland sitcoms, with fellow new show In Case of Emergency (this one actually just a straightforward show about a group of loser friends, which admittedly I have not seen) and stalwart old-fashioned bores According to Jim and George Lopez. It's not really quirky enough to attract the slightly more discerning audience that tunes in to NBC's Thursday night comedy lineup, but it's probably too offbeat to fit in comfortably with Jim and George. After months of hype, I see this not as the next new comedy sensation, but as forgotten by the spring. ABC, Wednesdays, 9 p.m.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Weekend viewing

Prom Night (Paul Lynch, 1980)
Another one from Slant's "Camp Horror" feature, this one not nearly as entertaining as The Slumber Party Massacre. Actually rather dreary, poorly paced and not at all scary; not even any gratuitous nudity to distract from the shoddy filmmaking. It does have Jamie Lee Curtis, just post-Halloween, doing the scream queen thing, and a bizarrely long disco-dance finale, which the people at Slant seem to think is better than the movie itself. I didn't think it was good enough to redeem the previous 90 minutes, which were also marred by a DVD with such an awful transfer (murky sound and picture, bathed in red like an old VHS tape) that half the time I couldn't tell what was going on even if I'd cared to.

Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952)
This was my New Year's Eve: At my mom's with my brother and sister, none of us with anything else to do, watching Singin' in the Rain. It was actually quite nice, and after my disappointment last week with The Band Wagon, I ended up liking this much better, even if it did have a similar interminable and tangential Cyd Charisse dance sequence toward the end. I realize that plots are secondary at best in films like this, but I liked the plot here quite a bit, the exploration of the end of the sound era and the birth of the movie musical. Donen & Kelly's direction is outstanding, and this movie about movies really uses sweeping camera movements, vibrant Technicolor, outlandish set design and costumes, and wacky special effects to their full potential. It feels big, but at the same time the little moments between Kelly and Debbie Reynolds also ring true, which to me was just as important as the music being good.