Saturday, April 28, 2007

Movies opening this week

The Condemned (Steve Austin, Vinnie Jones, Robert Mammone, dir. Scott Wiper)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It's odd that in a week with multiple movies not screened for critics (The Invisible, Kickin' It Old Skool) or screened too late for many print outlets to review (Next), this would be the one movie that they are opening up for coverage. Other than its rather hilarious moral hypocrisy, there's nothing of note about this movie, but it's sure getting a lot of press since nothing else is available for the nation's critics to write about. Hmm...maybe it's not so odd that they screened it after all. Wide release

Exterminating Angels (Frederic van den Driessche, Maroussia Dubreuil, Lise Bellynck, dir. Jean-Claude Brisseau)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I said when I saw Brisseau's last film, Secret Things, that I couldn't quite tell whether it was a good movie or not, but I feel confident now saying that this is a good movie, even though it's completely narcissistic and self-indulgent. Brisseau may indeed be an arrogant asshole, but he's got something interesting to say about how people disregard others' emotions in the pursuit of art, and how acting and reality don't necessarily exist in two separate, sealed-off realms. Also, hot lesbian sex, which shouldn't be discounted. Opened limited Mar. 7; in Las Vegas this week

Next (Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, Jessica Biel, dir. Lee Tamahori)
It's interesting to read the summary of the Philip K. Dick short story that this movie is allegedly based on and wonder why they even bothered to get the rights to it. The story and the film have essentially nothing in common, not even a title. I wonder if this started as a more faithful adaptation and just evolved somehow over the course of several drafts from "golden-skinned mutant in the future" to "Las Vegas showroom magician." It seems like a pretty big leap. Anyway, this is a curiously pointless movie, with a plot that puts all of its emphasis on what would seem like the least important goal. That is, the FBI expends nearly all of its efforts to track down Cage's magician who can see two minutes into the future, rather than, say, stopping the terrorists who are about to detonate a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. There's a great moment where some big FBI guy says to Moore's agent that the timetable for the bomb has been moved up, and she seriously says that this means they need to dedicate all of their resources to...finding Nicolas Cage. And after all his running from them, the whole terrorist thing is a big anticlimax, followed by the stupidest twist ending ever. The movie practically taunts you about how it's wasting your time. Plus, Cage and Biel have to be the ickiest and least believable screen couple of all time. Wide release

Friday, April 27, 2007

Veitch @ Vertigo: Can't Get No and Army @ Love

Although Rick Veitch is something of an icon of indie comics and the early days of Vertigo (collaborating with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing and later taking over as both writer and artist), I wasn't familiar with his work until recently, when I happened to read his 2006 graphic novel Can't Get No and the first issue of his new ongoing series Army @ Love (both kindly sent over by DC/Vertigo) around the same time. These are very different works in many ways - obviously foremost in format, with one a longform, self-contained work, while the other is a serialized, open-ended story (the second issue was out last week, although I didn't read it). And Can't Get No is somber and sweeping, even in its moments of humor, while Army @ Love is a full-on satire.

Let me get this out of the way before I go any further so you can understand my opinion on Veitch: They are both really, really bad. In fact, Can't Get No may be the most unbearable reading experience I've ever had with a graphic novel. It only took maybe 10 pages for me to realize I was going to hate it, and yet I read all 352 pages of it for the same reason, I suppose, that I refuse to walk out of a movie or turn off a DVD even if I can't stand what I'm watching. Veitch's art is clear and accomplished enough, but his subject matter and storytelling style are so pretentious and cloying that they easily overwhelm any enjoyment that comes from the appealing visuals. The book is in an odd horizontal format, with long, squat pages, and the art is simple, black-and-white linework. The most striking formal element, though, is the disconnect between the words and the pictures. There are no dialogue bubbles or thought balloons; rather the entire book is filled with narrative captions that form sort of an epic, free-verse poem, using overwrought and pseudo-profound language that generally has little if anything to do with what the reader is looking at.

On top of that, the subject matter here is 9/11 and its aftermath, which is certainly legitimate but takes a special touch not to seem like exploitation. Veitch's meaningless, irritating narration makes it look like he's tacked it onto a national tragedy in order to give it false resonance, and the actual story, with a protagonist covered accidentally in indelible ink, seems like some sort of hazy metaphor for the country being marked by something it can never erase. While the art is good, it can't really convey much without dialogue, and thus the characters are all just ciphers. Veitch seems like someone with very strong political views who has trouble expressing them without resorting to obtuse literary devices.

Which is essentially the same problem with Army @ Love, an unfunny and completely bizarre satire that, although it's told in a much more straightforward style, is no less baffling than Can't Get No. Veitch's near-future world in which the U.S. Army uses battlefield sex to recruit people and makes war cool again is both illogical and confused, and I'm not exactly sure what aspect of current political or military life is being satirized here. It's so over the top that certainly none of the characters are sympathetic or easy to identify with, and the humor seems rather dated. Again, the art is solid, and helped by Gary Erskine's strong inking, but Veitch's point is lost under his strained efforts to shock. I also can't imagine how this is sustainable as an ongoing series.

Not many people are doing explicit political commentary in mainstream comics (unless you count something like Civil War, which I wouldn't), so it's good that Veitch is making the effort and Vertigo is supporting it, I guess. As much as I admire grand, ambitious failures, though, I'd much rather see something more down to earth with fully realized characters that makes its point less showily, but maybe with greater effect.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Movies opening this week

Fracture (Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling, Rosamund Pike, David Strathairn, dir. Gregory Hoblit)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm sort of surprised at all the good reviews for this movie, which is a pretty mundane and unoriginal thriller. It's certainly not awful, and Hopkins doing his Hannibal Lecter bit is still entertaining, but it's not all that involving or suspenseful, and is full of giant plot holes. Also, I really think Ryan Gosling has gotten sort of overrated. Not that I didn't think he was good in Half Nelson, but the praise for him in this movie is baffling. His whole performance consists of adding very "look I'm an actor" touches to everything, with long pauses, head bobs and squints that somehow have convinced everyone he's doing something Really Deep. I'll take the restraint of Joseph Gordon-Levitt over showiness like that any day. Wide release

Hot Fuzz (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, dir. Edgar Wright)
Although I enjoyed this team's first movie, Shaun of the Dead, I don't think I quite enjoyed it as much as some did, and this follow-up is more uneven. There are parts that are very funny, and Wright has clearly studied dumb action movies (particularly those of Michael Bay) very closely. The problem may be that he's studied them too closely, and far too often this movie simply comes off as an actual dumb action movie rather than a parody. Which means that it's poorly paced and too long, and really drags in the middle. Once the climax kicks in, though, the last 20 minutes or so are great, a perfect send-up of both action movies and those "aren't British villages so quaint?" movies, and I left the theater with a smile on my face, so that was good enough for me. Wide release

Friday, April 13, 2007

Movies opening this week

Disturbia (Shia LaBeouf, Sarah Roemer, David Morse, Aaron Yoo, Carrie-Anne Moss, dir. D.J. Caruso)
Yes, this movie is a blatant rip-off of Rear Window, and it's silly that they don't credit it as such, but if you put that aside and think of this is a genuine remake, it's actually pretty good. It takes the basic premise of Rear Window but doesn't just modernize it - it really does make it relevant to the characters, who get time to develop as people, and it uses the device of the home-monitoring device to set up some ingenious suspense and drive the plot in clever and unexpected ways. It's also totally predictable and often cheesy, and turns into a dumb slasher movie in the last 20 minutes. But considering how bad it could easily have been and served essentially the same purpose, the movie is surprisingly watchable, with good performances (LaBeouf is good in almost everything he does, and probably about to become a big star with Transformers) and a nice slow build until the insanity at the end. It's not one to rush out and see, but if a friend suggests renting it in a few months, give it a chance. Wide release

Nomad (Kuno Becker, Jason Scott Lee, Jay Hernandez, Ayana Yesmagambetova, dir. Ivan Passer and Sergei Bodrov)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I don't think the review quite does justice to how unbelievably awful this movie is. I mean that literally - I actually could not believe that a bunch of movie executives (the Weinsteins, even) watched this movie and thought that it would be a good idea to dub it into English and give it a moderately wide American release (it opens in three theaters in Vegas this week). The dialogue is so horrendous, the plotting so scattershot that the only possible response is to hurl insults at the screen. This is the kind of movie they'd have on Mystery Science Theater 3000 where you'd wonder, "Where the hell did they find this thing?" And yet, here it is, at your local multiplex. Unbelievable. Opened limited Mar. 16; in Las Vegas this week

Perfect Stranger (Halle Berry, Bruce Willis, Giovanni Ribisi, dir. James Foley)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I don't think the review quite does justice to how unbelievably awful this movie is. Oh, wait, did I already say that? Well, this movie is just about as bad as Nomad - it got an extra half-star because at least the dialogue isn't dubbed, and I got a few chuckles out of the more especially ludicrous scenarios. An equally good candidate for MST3K treatment, though. Wide release

Sunday, April 08, 2007


This is a bit outside my usual subject matter realm, but I saw the new Vegas production of Spamalot at the Wynn last night, and feel inspired to comment on it. First of all, I largely agree with Julie Seabaugh's review from Las Vegas Weekly: It's an entertaining, fun show that completely lacks structure, and serves mostly to remind you how good the movie is. It's the show's relationship to the film that I find the most interesting, though. Now, I am far from an expert on musical theater or indeed the current trend of adapting films into stage musicals, but I find the logic behind the transmutation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail into Spamalot entirely baffling. As much as I hated The Producers musical film (although I can only guess how I'd feel about the stage production, having not bothered to see the Vegas version), I can understand how and why the original movie would seem like an ideal candidate for transformation into a stage (and later screen) musical. It is a story entirely about Broadway and the glories/absurdities of staging a large-scale musical production. The journey from screen to stage and back again seemed almost organic.

But the Python film, with its non sequitur sense of humor and cult following, seems supremely unsuited to this sort of treatment, and indeed the show takes so many liberties with the source material that it is at times unrecognizable. And much of what is added turns it into a play about putting on a Broadway musical - surprise, just like The Producers. I don't know much about how hardcore Python fans feel about the play, but as a casual fan (it's been a few years since I last saw the movie), I found it a little insulting. It really drains all the cleverness and excitement out of the jokes to play them up so crassly and make them into cute little production numbers. As we were walking out of the theater, I said to my friend who came to the show with me (and who hasn't seen the movie, but was also underwhelmed) that it was like if someone took another beloved quirky cult movie (like The Big Lebowski, for example) and made it into a musical, and turned every quotable line (say, "The rug really tied the room together") into a five-minute song-and-dance number. It'd be amusing, but it'd kind of miss the point. Of course, my friend pointed out that within five years there probably will be a Big Lebowski musical. And I will probably be the first in line to see it.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Movies opening this week

Grindhouse (Rose McGowan, Kurt Russell, Freddy Rodriguez, Rosario Dawson, Marley Shelton, dir. Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino)
I think I managed to temper my expectations enough that this movie just about met them, which means I didn't find it nearly as giddily entertaining as some have, but I did have a good time watching it. It's really, of course, two movies, which will be released separately in every other country in the world, but as an ersatz trashy theater experience (and speaking as someone who's never really had such an experience), it was definitely effective. The fake trailers are easily the funniest things in the whole package, and Rodriguez at least commits wholeheartedly to the illusion that his film is a damaged, scratched-up old print. Aside from that, he does a pretty good approximation of B-movie style, although of course he has the benefit of CGI effects. Really, it's not like this sort of silly, over the top zombie thriller has much gone out of style; Planet Terror reminded me strongly of last year's Slither, a funnier and more exciting take on very similar material. Still, the movie kept me entertained and made me laugh enough that I enjoyed it, and McGowan is surprisingly compelling as the stripper with a machine gun for a leg.

On the other hand, I'm still not sure what to make of Tarantino's contribution, Death Proof, which must be following in some exploitation tradition that I'm not entirely familiar with. It's definitely not a horror movie, and although it's sort of a woman-get-revenge picture in its last third, the pacing is so lopsided that it seems like three different movies in the span of 90 minutes. The first third is the best, I thought, with Sydney Tamiia Poitier turning in an excellent performance as a lusty radio DJ, but then things take an abrupt turn and Tarantino treats us to lots of really long scenes of people talking in circles, which one would think might be his strength but just come off as forced and boring. And then the climax is so tonally awkward that it still baffles me. There are mentions of movies that I haven't seen (Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry) that may be reference points to illuminate some of Tarantino's intentions, or maybe not. He's certainly still a bold filmmaker, and this whole omnibus is unique and daring enough that it's worth seeing, all in one sitting in a theater as it's intended, even if everything doesn't quite add up in the way it seems meant to. Wide release

The Hoax (Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, dir. Lasse Hallstrom)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I got burned with Hallstrom's last allegedly "whimsical" film, Casanova, but this one actually was entertaining, if not much more than that. It's got nice period detail (to be fair, so did Casanova) and a jazzy lead performance from Gere, even if it's completely predictable and a little overwrought toward the end. Still, in its more restrained prestige, it's leagues ahead of Hallstrom's other recent work. Limited release this week; wide release April 13

In the Pit (documentary, dir. Juan Carlos Rulfo)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Since CineVegas started up their very welcome Arthouse Screening Series, they have been playing a lot of these good-for-you documentaries that I have scrupulously been avoiding reviewing and/or watching because I feel like I don't have much to say about them. And I know many are likely great - I have the Iraq in Fragments screener at home, and I will get around to watching it eventually - but they are often hard to break down and analyze or criticize, and not all that much fun to write about. But I finally ended up covering one, and actually writing about it was not as difficult as I expected. I still don't expect to be blown away by films like this, but they're valuable to watch, and this one is mostly well-made. Opened limited Feb. 2; in Las Vegas this week

The Reaping (Hilary Swank, David Morrissey, Idris Elba, AnnaSophia Robb, dir. Stephen Hopkins)
I really had no reason to see this movie, but I am drawn to these shitty horror movies by some primal urge (these are what I watch instead of edifying documentaries, usually), and thus, there I was watching Hilary Swank continue her WTF post-Oscar career by fighting off the 10 biblical plagues. There is a little bit of Southern gothic charm to this movie, which reminded me in some ways of another dumb horror movie set in the South, The Skeleton Key, although that one at least had a sort of cool and very dark ending. The ending here was just idiotic, as was the rest of the movie, a combination of elements from The Omen, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby and every other movie that ever ripped them off. At one point, a priest dumps all this exposition on Swank's character to explain what's going on, and she complains that it's contradictory and convoluted. You know the old rule: When the characters bitch about the plot, you're in serious trouble. Wide release

Sweet Land (Elizabeth Reaser, Tim Guinee, Alan Cumming, John Heard, dir. Ali Selim)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Postponed when the CineVegas series moved venues, this is now opening this week, and as I said when it was originally set to open, it's worth seeing for its well-composed visuals and pleasant, simple story, but not as good as I had hoped. Opened limited Dec. 1; in Las Vegas this week

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Jake 2.0

Thanks to the miracle of TiVo (yes, I finally got one), I was able to leisurely make my way through the 16 episodes of forgotten 2003 UPN series Jake 2.0 when Sci Fi aired them in chunks over a series of Fridays a few months ago. This isn't a show that would have caught my interest normally, but it got surprisingly positive response when it initially aired, and a couple of the main writers, David Greenwalt and Javier Grillo-Marxuach, went on to work on stuff that I liked. It had the reputation of being a fun sci-fi/action show with some clever humor and intelligent writing.

So I actually had somewhat high expectations for this neglected show, and at first I was a bit disappointed. Christopher Gorham is pleasant as Jake, a tech nerd accidentally injected with nanites that give him superpowers. He goes to work for the government, and many of the early episodes are fairly formulaic spy stories, with a superhero twist. Jake's got an annoying unrequited love interest who was thankfully dropped about halfway through the show's short run, and the agents who work with him are kind of bland. But I liked Keegan Connor Tracy as the geek-hot doctor with whom Jake has sexual tension, and there is indeed some humor that shines through the predictable plots.

It wasn't until near the end of the run, and especially in the final four episodes, which never aired on UPN, that the show actually grabbed my attention and seemed like it had real potential and even some depth. Once the writers got away from the self-contained stories and started focusing more on the ramifications of Jake's powers, building up ongoing villains and some serialized elements, things got a lot more interesting, and I felt like I had more of an investment in the characters. Jake's burgeoning relationship with Tracy's scientist, Diane, was handled well, and there were even some good character moments for Jake's boring partner and boss. I don't think the show was ever quite as good as I'd been led to believe (mainly by Television Without Pity, I think), but if it had been a Sci Fi original rather than an old network cast-off (which, really, it probably should have been), I would have kept watching to see what developed.