Tuesday, February 27, 2007

New comics catch-up

Once again, work and other commitments have put me horribly behind on posting...well, anything, really, so here's a quick look at comics from the last two weeks.

From 2/21:

Cable & Deadpool #37 (Fabian Nicieza/Staz Johnson, Marvel)
Just when it seemed like this book was settling into a regular artist, we get another fill-in, although at least Johnson has worked on the series before. His art is a little rough, but perfectly adequate, and the story is an amusing sequel to one from the original Deadpool series (which I haven't read). I honestly am not missing Cable in his absence from this book, as his messiah complex has gotten tiresome, and even if Deadpool's latest antics don't make for a mind-blowing story, they are at least entertaining.

Powers #23 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Avon Oeming, Marvel/Icon)
In this issue, Walker fights...Satan? I've liked this arc so far, but here it gets a little too over the top, and once again I'm sad that this is apparently never going to be a solid, ground-level crime book anymore. I still like the exploration of Walker and Pilgrim's new powers, but I think that Bendis' efforts to increasingly up the stakes on each arc are getting sort of ridiculous.

She-Hulk #16 (Dan Slott/Rick Burchett, Marvel)
Once again Slott gives in to the big superhero action (complete with gratuitous Wolverine guest appearance) while retaining the humor of the recent law-firm era. We even get some of the supporting cast back, which is nice, and my guess is that Jennifer will be back practicing law before too long. In the meantime, this has been a fun diversion, and Burchett's art is continuing to grow on me.

From 2/14: Astonishing X-Men #20 continues to show Joss Whedon's strength at writing the X-Men in space, even if the story is once again moving rather slowly. Y the Last Man #54 offers up another nice little stand-alone story, although it does feel a little like pointless time-killing this close to the series' end. And, speaking of series ending, Nextwave #12 wraps up the weird and funny Warren Ellis/Stuart Immonen superhero parody in as hilarious and bizarre a fashion as it started, with ultimate villains including a baby M.O.D.O.K. and Devil Dinosaur in a smoking jacket. I think it was probably wise to end after 12 issues to avoid becoming repetitious, but I do hope for a sequel mini-series or two at some point down the line, after an appropriate amount of time away.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Movies opening this week

The Astronaut Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Max Thieriot, Jasper Polish, Logan Polish, dir. Michael Polish)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I think that sometimes critics, in their zeal to decry anything formulaic or manipulative, forget that a movie with a positive outlook that makes you feel good can be worthy of praise if it's made well and accomplishes those tasks in an honest and entertaining fashion. Despite its occasional dips into sentimentality, this is exactly such a film, and all the more refreshing given that it comes from the Polish brothers, whose indie projects have gotten increasingly esoteric. This is a family film, an upbeat film, an inspirational film, and it succeeds at all of those things, and that's not something to belittle. Wide release

The Number 23 (Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Danny Huston, Logan Lerman, dir. Joel Schumacher)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
As Nathan Lee notes in his hilarious review, this movie was a lot more fun to write about than it was to watch. Wide release

Reno 911!: Miami (Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Cedric Yarbrough, dir. Robert Ben Garant)
Yes, this is basically just an overextended version of the TV show, which itself is just a series of loosely connected sketches. Yes, it runs out of steam even at barely 80 minutes. Yes, it's pretty much Police Academy with better jokes. But it's very funny, and it's actually got one virtuoso single-take set-piece that's alone worth renting it on DVD, at least. Wide release

Seraphim Falls (Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Michael Wincott, dir. David Von Ancken)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It's nice to see more Westerns getting made, especially ones as gritty and engrossing as this one (at least until the end). It's good that this is a decent movie, too, because it'll probably have to carry the torch for its entire genre for the next few months or even until next year, depending on when the next example of this sadly underproduced genre gets made. Opened limited Jan. 26; in Las Vegas this week

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Comic book museums

One of the things I did during my trip to New York was check out the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, a relatively new (I only became aware of it in recent years) comics-focused museum in Manhattan. It's definitely a small space, really just one suite on the fourth floor of an office building, and you certainly wouldn't know it was there just by walking by (there's no signage, although the museum is listed in the building's directory). Even so, there were a good number of people there on the Saturday afternoon I went with my friends, enough that the place felt fairly full. The major exhibit up was a retrospective on Saturday morning cartoons, with cels and original art from shows from the '40s through the '90s. It was a nice nostalgia trip, but nothing particularly revelatory. I did enjoy seeing the toys they had, including an entire Smurf village, and Castle Grayskull from Masters of the Universe (which I did own as a kid). There was a smaller exhibit dedicated to two New York City comics artists - Paolo Rivera, who does painted superhero art for Marvel, and indie artist R. Kikuo Johnson, whose work I wasn't familiar with. It's cool to see the painted art on the actual canvas, since when you see it printed on the comics page I think it's easy to forget that there's a real painting that goes along with what you're looking at.

Unfortunately, their third exhibit, a Stan Lee tribute, was still being put up, so all we saw were some props from his lame Sci Fi reality show, Who Wants to Be a Superhero?, and some Millie the Model original pages. It looks like it'll be a good exhibit, although it's disappointing that they're dedicating any space at all to the reality show. I wonder if Stripperella will get some recognition as well.

I'm glad to see a successful, if modest, operation that focuses on comics and cartoon history, since maintaining such an establishment seems to have been difficult in the past. When I went to Amherst College in Massachusetts, the Words and Pictures Museum was in the next town over, Northampton, although it closed during my freshman or sophomore year (sometime in 1999), and I only went once. I remember it being much bigger than the MoCCA, but not exactly crowded. Northampton was for a while something of a comics mecca (Kevin Eastman, who founded the museum, lived and I think still lives there, as did Paul Jenkins, and Kitchen Sink Press and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund - where I worked as an intern - were both based there), but it's a small town basically in the middle of nowhere. The museum was cool, and more extensive than the MoCCA, but it obviously needed something more to inspire even comics geeks to make a pilgrimage to Western Massachusetts. (It continues online, supposedly, but it looks like the website hasn't been updated in a long time.)

More recently, Diamond owner Steve Geppi's Entertainment Museum in Baltimore has reportedly been in financial trouble, and is probably kept afloat mostly by Geppi's personal financing. Supposedly the location, attached to the city's baseball stadium, is tough to find, but again, if it were really worth seeking out, the comics geeks would be there. Clearly keeping an institution like this afloat is a difficult prospect. Part of the ongoing legtimization of comics should be a sort of museum-quality respectability, and thus you'd think it might be a bad sign that there aren't more or more successful comics museums. But comics have become so respectable, in fact, that the art is getting shown in major, mainstream art museums, which is a mixed blessing as well. Only the most highbrow stuff, generally, will make it into general art museums, or the lowbrow stuff that's the most well-known. The best thing about a place like MoCCA, if it can succeed and grow, will be to showcase all variety of comics art and creators, allowing people to experience the great diversity and variety of the medium, and not just a small, hand-picked representation.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Movies opening this week

No comics post this week, as I will be in New York for the next few days.

Breach (Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, dir. Billy Ray)
In what's traditionally considered the dregs of the major-release schedule, namely January and February, I have in the past week or so seen three very strong films that are at least as good as most of the awards bait from the end of 2006 still trickling into theaters around the country. This is one (the other two, The Astronaut Farmer and Seraphim Falls, open in Vegas next week), and it's every bit the movie that The Good Shepherd should have been. A tight, focused and realistic look behind the scenes of American espionage, it manages to be extremely suspenseful even though we know from an opening news clip (if not from remembered reports of the actual event) exactly what the ultimate outcome will be. Like Ray's first film as director, Shattered Glass, this film expertly explores office politics in an office where the work is seen as of life-and-death importance (it wasn't, really, in Shattered Glass, but here it genuinely is). This is also a film about loyalty, and how that loyalty is challenged when faced with evidence that the person it's devoted to has engaged in nothing but betrayal. Cooper is phenomenal as the religious patriot who's also a pervert and a traitor, and Phillippe, though not as revelatory as Hayden Christensen in Shattered Glass, stands up quite well. This is the kind of movie that gets forgotten by the end of the year, but is proof that serious, high-quality studio films are not the sole purview of the year-end crunch. Wide release

Breaking and Entering (Jude Law, Juliette Binoche, Robin Wright Penn, dir. Anthony Minghella)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I think this is the last of the movies I saw for awards consideration back in December to finally make its way to Vegas, and it's certainly one of the least notable. I loved Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, but he seems like a detached and sort of emotionless filmmaker, and this earnest treatise on class and immigration doesn't suit him very well. It's muddled and stilted, and the characters all come off like plot devices. It also hints at a certain nastiness that would have been a bolder and more interesting move, but instead retreats from that into a bland, safe ending that doesn't say nearly as much as it should. Opened limited Dec. 15; in Las Vegas this week

Ghost Rider (Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Peter Fonda, Wes Bentley, dir. Mark Steven Johnson)
Johnson sure has carved a niche for himself in adapting B-level Marvel Comics characters into mediocre movies. This is about as good as his Daredevil from 2003 - not horrible, but not really worth recommending, either. It's actually quite campy, which I found amusing but which fans of the dark, horror-centric comics character may not. Cage cannot help but bring his twitchy Nicolas Cage-ness, which is probably entirely inappropriate for the character but nevertheless adds a weird layer of existential dread. Mendes is appealing as the love interest, but the plot really fails in the villain department. Bentley looks like a cast-off from Good Charlotte, and his Blackheart is more whiny than menacing, and defeated way too easily. The effects when Cage changes into Ghost Rider look silly, and it doesn't help that he then speaks in a voice that sounds like Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget. Any movie in which a character actually laughs maniacally can't possibly expect to be taken seriously. Wide release

Music and Lyrics (Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Haley Bennett, Brad Garrett, dir. Marc Lawrence)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Really, as far as inoffensive romantic comedies go, this is not that bad. It's got likeable leads and some amusing moments, but it lacks any real conflict or energy. It just sort of slumps to its conclusion without any real justification for its existence. Just once, I'd like to see a movie use '80s culture as a plot element and deal with it seriously and honestly (even if the movie was a comedy), rather than use it as a lazy gimmick. Wide release

Monday, February 12, 2007

New comics 2/7

Astro City: The Dark Age Book Two #2 (Kurt Busiek/Brent Anderson, DC/Wildstorm)
Man, that is one cumbersome title. Anyway, this volume has been a little less focused than the first, which was all about one central mystery, but at the end of this issue we get a big revelation that's connected to the key part of Charles and Royal's back story, so that's something to hone in on. Actually, it seems like such a big something that I'd be surprised if it were addressed and resolved completely within this volume, as the Silver Agent mystery was in the last one. We'll see, I suppose.

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born #1 (Robin Furth & Peter David/Jae Lee, Marvel)
This has gotten more attention than any first issue in a long time, and even as a big Stephen King fan, I think it's too much. Really, after all the hype about King's coming to comics, this has turned out to be a respectable but not spectacular adaptation of his work, overseen by him but written by others, and adding, at this point, essentially nothing new to the Dark Tower mythos. That's not to say it wasn't good - as someone who found the final Dark Tower novels incredibly frustrating, I was happy to be back in the earlier days of the saga, when it was about epic adventure and betrayals and not meta-fictional nonsense. Lee's art is beautiful as always, although I'm generally partial to his more abstract work, and everything here is a little too controlled. David captures the tone of King's prose maybe a little too well, over-relying on the made-up language of Roland's world, but the script (and Furth's plotting) never felt false. This is a solid, well-crafted adaptation, and I'm interested to read the rest of the series, but I'll be a lot more interested if I finally come across something new along the way.

Ex Machina #26 (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
This was actually out last week, but I only just picked it up. Vaughan finally tackles 9/11 head-on after dancing around it for a long time, and throws in a city-wide blackout, too. The subplot with Kremlin and January trying to sabotage the mayor's administration continues as well, and lots of things seem to be building in a book that usually has fairly self-contained arcs. Plus, there's another creepy new villain, which is something Vaughan does very well in this series. Another promising opening to a new arc.

Fell #7 (Warren Ellis/Ben Templesmith, Image)
It's turned into quite an event when this book actually comes out, which is too bad, but this is another very good issue. I complained about Ellis turning Richard into one of his trademark badass smarter-than-everyone protagonists in the last interrogation issue, where he completely breaks the suspect down and gets exactly what he wants out of him. Here, he seems to be doing the same thing, only to have his confidence backfire on him, and it was a really nice inversion of the typical Ellis set-up, and a good humbling moment for the character. Now let's see if we can wait fewer than three or four months for the next issue to show up.

Newuniversal #3 (Warren Ellis/Salvador Larroca, Marvel)
I don't know how much longer I can give Ellis the benefit of the doubt on this one. The plot is moving at a snail's pace, most of the characters are unlikeable, and the ideas remained recycled from other comics. This issue spends three pages setting up some random group of thugs who then just get murdered by one of the main characters. I don't know what direction it's all going in, but I have a feeling we won't find out for a while, and in the meantime I have lost whatever interest I had after the first issue (which wasn't much to begin with). If this was a finite series, I'd stick around for the end, but in an ongoing, it doesn't seem worth it.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Movies opening this week

Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ebru Ceylan, Nazan Kirilmis, dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This is the second week in a row that CineVegas has booked a slow, methodical and minimalist film that I was excited to see and ended up finding boring. Like Old Joy, this isn't a bad film per se, and it has its strong points, including an interesting sound design and a lovely visual style. But, also like Old Joy, it seems to think it's saying more than it really is in its quiet moments, which are unfortunately flat. Still, I remain impressed with the bold and varied choices of movies that CineVegas is bringing to town, even if I don't always like them. Opened limited Oct. 27; in Las Vegas this week

Norbit (Eddie Murphy, Thandie Newton, Terry Crews, Cuba Gooding Jr., dir. Brian Robbins)
Although this is certainly an awful movie, and it's pretty offensive to overweight people and Asians, I think the degree of its offensiveness has been exaggerated by people like Walter Chaw and Scott Tobias (although I appreciate their vitriol). Ultimately I think this movie is too stupid to be worth getting so worked up over, and that its stereotypes are merely exaggerated versions of what you can see in a lot of other - also awful - movies. The sad thing, then, is how unfunny and unoriginal this movie is, simply tapping into those lazy stereotypes and hitting them over and over again. It's got a contrived and slapdash plot, and nothing resembling real characters. At least in something like Coming to America, in which Murphy played multiple roles, the main character had him unadorned, and seemed like an actual person. Not so here, where every Murphy role is a distracting affectation that never overcomes its obvious manufactured nature. Wide release

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Gilmore Girls

I've finally come around to this show in a sort of circuitous way. When it first premiered, it seemed like something I might like, but I believe it was on opposite Friends and I was, at the time, a big Friends fan. (It's tempting to feel ashamed of this, but I think Friends, at least its earlier years, has gotten kind of a knee-jerk bad rap. But that's a subject for another time.) So I didn't start watching it right away, but the more I read about how good it was and saw ads for it, the more it really seemed like it would appeal to me. I remember watching it once or twice, then, maybe when Friends was in repeats, but just not being drawn in. I then wrote it off as a show with a good premise that just didn't work for me, although I wished it well.

Then, a couple of years ago, I wrote a story in which I watched TV for 24 hours straight. One of the things I watched was a Gilmore Girls repeat, which just blew me away with the quality of its writing and acting. I guess since I had dismissed it in the past, I didn't expect anything quite that good, or that affecting. Now, I've finally gotten around to really watching the show, having just finished the first season on DVD from Netflix. And I think I can say that my raised expectations from that one episode were met. I read a lot now about how the show has sharply declined, especially in the eyes of hardcore fans, but coming at the first season I could hardly find any flaws.

The two main characters are immediately appealing and identifiable, even with their rapid-fire dialogue and constant witticisms. They are idealized versions of people you might like to know, or to be, but at the same time their lives are certainly not ideal. There is a definite emotional core to the show that never seems at odds with the light, banter-y tone. These are smart, independent women who are able to find love with smart, independent men, but are just as capable of doing stupid, needy things to screw it up. They love each other in a mostly non-dysfunctional way, but they have plenty of dysfunction in their relationships with other people. There is an emotional reality here to go along with the unreality of the dialogue.

And I can see how the barrage of pop-culture references and circular conversations could get old over time, but for now I find it very entertaining. Strangely enough, I sort of skimmed through some of the special features on the DVD, one of which features some interview footage of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. She talked exactly like Lorelai, and I found it unbelievably annoying. It's odd to think that what's so appealing and entertaining in a TV character could be so immediately annoying and off-putting in a real person. That said, the more sedate Rory does seem like someone I wish I knew back when I was in high school, though I certainly was no Dean.

I've got the second season lined up now in my Netflix queue, although I'm watching some other stuff first. I don't know if I'll see the same decline in quality over time as so many others have, but I think I'll keep watching until (and unless) I do.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

New comics 1/31

Jack of Fables #7 (Bill Willingham & Matthew Sturges/Tony Akins, DC/Vertigo)
Strangely, this issue starts a new storyline even though the previous one (only a two-parter, even) has not finished. A caption on the first page glibly notes that this is "more suspenseful," and that it'll be fixed in the trade. I guess it's good that the arcs are fairly self-contained here, although if there was any mystery about how Jack would get off the mountain and what shape he'd be in afterward, that's sort of blown. Anyway, this issue finds Jack and one of his fellow inmates from Golden Boughs in Vegas, and as the co-owner of the comics shop I go to complained, comics rarely represent Vegas accurately, or without relying on stereotypes. This is doubly sad here because Willingham actually lives in Vegas, but this issue still has the whole "casinos are run by crooked mobsters" and "people in Vegas get drunk and wind up married" bit, albeit with a supernatural twist. It's still a fun story, though, and this is probably the wrong book to be expecting verisimilitude from. It's good to see one of the supporting players from the first arc around while still moving forward from it and not having the whole book driven by Jack running from his former captors.

Also out this week: Not much I was interested in, apparently, although Ex Machina #26 didn't make it to my local store, so I'll pick that up next week.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Movies opening this week

The Good German (George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire, dir. Steven Soderbergh)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I had this grand plan to watch this movie again (on an awards screener; I first saw it back in early December) and write an in-depth and insightful review to offer at least one positive voice in the sea of negative criticism for it. However, I didn't find out until Tuesday that this would be opening in Vegas this week, and I didn't have enough time to re-watch or for us to allocate more space in the paper. Plus I was really tired after playing catch-up post-vacation. Thus, this is not the most cogent or insightful review I've ever written, and that's especially frustrating to me because I so wanted to give this movie whatever minuscule boost could come from a positive review by someone as obscure as I am. But I will say again that I do think this is a very good movie, that it's more than just a detached film-school exercise, and that, furthermore, it's quite entertaining. Clooney's character constantly getting beat up, Maguire's gleeful nastiness, Blanchett's cynical bitterness and Marlene Dietrich accent - it's all great fun to watch, and very evocative, and I hope that more people will give it a chance. Opened limited Dec. 15; in Las Vegas this week

The Messengers (Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller, John Corbett, dir. Danny & Oxide Pang)
I liked the Pangs' breakthrough film, The Eye, at least until it sort of fell into incoherence toward the end. Whatever its faults, though, at least The Eye had a great premise (girl gets ocular transplant, sees horrific images of the life of the previous owner). The Messengers has no premise whatsoever - there's a house, and it's haunted, because something bad that's never really explained happened at some time in the past. A bunch of ghostly figures ripped right out of The Grudge run around and do very little (since this is a PG-13 movie), and all the scares are of your basic loud-noise-following-eerie-quiet variety. Pretty standard by your throwaway horror movie, er, standards, but a disappointment from these guys. Wide release

Old Joy (Daniel London, Will Oldham, dir. Kelly Reichardt)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I really wanted to like this movie. I truly did. I heard all sorts of good things about it, and it's gotten such a small release that I was excited that it made it to Vegas at all (the screener I got was just a hand-lettered DVD-R). It was probably the one movie announced by the CineVegas people that I was most excited to see. And while I didn't hate it like a fellow local critic did, I was seriously underwhelmed and disappointed. I didn't find any rich subtext or characterization beneath the minimalism, and while some of the images were very pretty, they weren't particularly moving. Opened limited Aug. 25; in Las Vegas this week

Venus (Peter O'Toole, Jodie Whittaker, Leslie Phillips, dir. Roger Michell)
Although one local female critic at the screening I attended was disgusted by this movie, I think its portrait of an aging lech and his inappropriate relationship with the 19-year-old niece of his best friend was honest, touching and funny. Michell doesn't shy away from the creepiness of a guy brazenly lusting after a girl almost 50 years his junior, and he doesn't make this into some gauzy love story, either. The girl gives in to some of her pursuer's advances mostly out of insecurity, and although she learns something valuable from him, that doesn't mean she ends up finding him physically attractive. The fact is, relationships like this are often fraught with icky sexual tension, and to confront it in a sweet and straightforward way is, I think, far more valuable than to pretend it doesn't happen. Opened limited Dec. 21; in Las Vegas this week