Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Summer TV round-up: Returning shows

The 4400 (USA, Sundays, 9 p.m.)
Last year, I said that this show was no longer a guilty pleasure for me, but I'm not so sure about that anymore. Not that I'm not still enjoying it, because I am for the most part, but the idea that there is a coherent plan and a calculated evolution is no longer one I buy into. Basically, they are making this up as they go along, and I'm pretty sure I've seen the producers say as much in interviews, although none that I can locate at the moment. And maybe having a predetermined long-term plan is overrated, anyway, or at the very least not the only possible way of doing things on a show like this. There's something to be said for improvising and taking chances, which is obviously something they do here. Then again, this show has become so convoluted that it's nearly impossible to figure out who's on which side, and instead of resolving any of the dozens of dangling plotlines, they generally just introduce new ones. This season has also seen the introduction of a useless new character as the latest NTAC boss and a sort of dilution of the premise in the idea that now anyone can get abilities by taking promicin. With only two more episodes left in the season, though, the pace has picked up, and the "Tom is possessed by an agent of the future" storyline is amusing in a campy way. But I do think I have to downgrade my assessment back to "guilty, cheesy sci-fi pleasure," which is still good enough to keep me watching if it gets renewed for another season.

The Closer (TNT, Mondays, 9 p.m.)
Now in its third season, this show has lost a little of the its initial zing, and I find myself less and less engaged with the mysteries of the week, although they were never the reason I was watching in the first place, really. The increased focus on Brenda's personal life has been nice, but I do worry that they are doing a little too much to make her vulnerable and feminine, especially since some of her health issues this season have interfered with her crime-fighting. The best thing about this show is that it stars a strong female character who doesn't just act like a man; I don't think I'd like to see her acting like some dainty, fragile lady, either, though. They are walking a fine line here, so far with success, but I worry that the more they do with Brenda's parents and her life with Fritz and her neuroses, the more they risk turning her into a cartoon. The personal stuff with the other characters has been more understated but still welcome, although in the case of Gabriel's rage issues and unprofessional conduct, it seems to have been dismissed too quickly. I hope for a smooth, continued integration of the character development into the crime-solving plots, which has always been the show's greatest strength.

Rescue Me (FX, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.)
Honestly, I give up. There's not much left to the season, so I'll see it out, but I haven't been interested in a single thing going on in this show this entire year. It's not that the problems they've got are new, but they've just been repeated so many times that I've lost all patience. There are still too many plot developments that seem like they're just inserted for shock value, too many cop-out devices that seem to come from the producers writing themselves into a corner. The Tommy character can bed any woman instantly, and his crises of faith and speeches about heroism just go round and round in circles at this point. The lesser characters are equally adrift, and although I've been dismissive in the past of the show's homophobia and misogyny, when there's nothing else worthwhile going on to distract from it, it becomes a lot more troubling. This was never quite as great a show as some people made it out to be, but its early episodes were raw and exciting, and at this point it just seems like time to call it a day.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Movies opening this week

I know I have been neglecting this blog. There should be more frequent posts coming soon (I hope).

Goya's Ghosts (Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, dir. Milos Forman)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I had pretty low expectations of this movie thanks to reading multiple negative reviews, but it turned out not to be that bad. It's kind of a mess, but individual elements are interesting, and it held my attention up until the last half-hour or so. Still, not exactly a success, and one wonders what Forman has been up to in the eight years since he last made a film, and if he might start on the next one a little sooner and set about redeeming himself (because even here you can see he has a great eye and a way with actors). Opened limited July 20; in Las Vegas this week

Resurrecting the Champ (Josh Hartnett, Samuel L. Jackson, Kathryn Morris, dir. Rod Lurie)
This sure is a dull, earnest movie, although for the first half I sort of went along with it in its inspirational cheesiness. After that, it gets bogged down in lessons about integrity and honesty and familial duty and whatever, and I totally tuned out. I imagine others will, too, although if you're looking for something vaguely pleasant and not too demanding, you could do worse. Plus, Jackson seems to be only partially coasting here, which is an upgrade from most of his recent roles. Wide release

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Movies opening this week

Death at a Funeral (Matthew MacFadyen, Rupert Graves, Daisy Donovan, Peter Dinklage, Alan Tudyk, dir. Frank Oz)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Most of the reviews of this movie have pegged it as completely innocuous, with some decent humor, but for some reason it really bugged me. It's not like it's offensively bad, just really, really hokey, and completely faux-edgy, which is always annoying. The jokes are quite old and not at all funny, and every hoary storytelling device in the world is trotted out. Basically, this is some horrible mainstream comedy dressed up with British accents and a disingenuously "dark" tone, and I found it really irritating. Limited release
Interview (Sienna Miller, Steve Buscemi, dir. Steve Buscemi) 
This movie really had me at first, as I do love talky, semi-pretentious and stagy dramas (see: Before Sunset/Sunrise, Two Girls and a Guy, etc.), but it eventually lost me, as the characters talk themselves to a certain point by the middle of the film and then continue to basically just talk around it. And the "shocking" twists toward the end just feel false and unnecessary. Still, possibly worth seeing for Miller's excellent performance; I haven't seen Factory Girl, but in everything else I've seen her in she's been completely unnoticeable, so maybe this one bodes well for her future beyond the tabloids. Opened limited July 13; in Las Vegas this week 

Superbad (Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, dir. Greg Mottola) This movie is quite the critical sensation right now, and I really think the whole Judd Apatow-worship thing (which extends to movies like this, on which he is merely a producer) has gotten a bit out of hand. That's not to say I didn't like this movie, because I did: It's definitely this year's genuinely funny bawdy teen comedy, with interesting characterization (at least for the two leads) and a loose, charming sense of everyone just having a good time making it. And unlike, say, Knocked Up, it doesn't also go out of its way to hit you with a startlingly moralistic message; only the last scene hints at this, and even it sort of implies that hanging out with your best friend is probably actually cooler than growing up and getting a girlfriend. 

But this is far from a brilliant film; it's slackly paced and relies too heavily on dick jokes, and the dimwit cop characters get too much screen time. Apatow is not the be-all and end-all of modern screen comedy, and I don't think a whole glut of movies either produced by him or mimicking his style is what the world needs right now. The more I think and read about Knocked Up, the more it bothers me, and the fact that it's praised as much for its dubious "heart" as its humor makes me think that we're in for more Apatow lectures about the joys of traditional relationships in the future. That's all speculation, of course, and for now this is a perfectly fun and enjoyable movie, but it makes me a little uneasy all the same. Wide release

Friday, August 10, 2007

Movies opening this week

Becoming Jane (Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, Julie Walters, James Cromwell, dir. Julian Jarrold)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
One of my former college classmates (and a current graduate student in English literature) is absolutely fuming about the existence of this movie and the myriad insults it pays to Jane Austen, who is one of this person's favorite authors. I don't quite share that outrage, given that I am a casual Austen reader at best (I read Pride and Prejudice in high school and Northanger Abbey in college), but I do see how this movie could be frustrating for Janeites, given its sort of reductive, belittling tone about Austen's skill as a writer. As a romantic drama, it's purely mediocre, but for a certain subset of literature fans, it could really be rather offensive. Opened limited Aug. 3; wide release this week

Stardust (Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, dir. Matthew Vaughn)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This was actually one of my most highly anticipated movies of the summer, although I haven't read the Neil Gaiman novel on which it's based. So I was disappointed in its mediocrity; it's all over the place plot-wise, too long and too unfocused. The leads don't really play well together, and the less said about De Niro's cringe-worthy performance, the better. Enough of the elements do work, though, that it makes it even more disappointing that it didn't all come together more successfully. Wide release

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born

The final issue of Marvel's first mini-series adapting Stephen King's Dark Tower novel series is out this week, and overall I have been sadly disappointed in the much-hyped product. Although I was cautiously optimistic at first, the series has played out in a such a rote, reverential way that it lacks all passion and excitement. I realize that Marvel are incredibly excited at the prospect of working directly with King, but it seems to me that they've been so careful and respectful that they've drained all the innovation out of the comics they've ended up producing.

It's even sadder because so much of the creative team is incredibly talented. King has his ups and downs, and has done a lot of repeating himself in recent years, but he's still a great storyteller, and this series in particular picks up on a thread from one of the earlier Tower novels (before they become annoyingly self-referential and indulgent). Writer Peter David is a comics master with a strong history of writing adaptations (none of which I've actually read, though). And artist Jae Lee has been responsible for some of the most beautiful images in comics in the last 15 years or so. Short of having King pen the adaptation himself, this is pretty much a dream team.

And yet all that professionalism may be why it falls short. David works so hard to mimic the folksy, archaic tone of King's prose that he goes way too far with the made-up words and phrases, and the narration sometimes reads like a painful King parody. Likewise, Lee supposedly drew and re-drew some pages multiple times, and while many of them look gorgeous, they lack the kinetic energy of his more sketchy, chaotic work. Lee has always been closer to Bill Sienkiewicz or Sam Kieth than to John Cassaday or Greg Land, but here he seems to be trying to mimic the pretty photorealism of the latter two, and it's sapping the vitality from much of his work.

Then there's the story itself, an expansion of an episode in the fourth Dark Tower novel, Wizard and Glass. It offers essentially nothing new to add to the Dark Tower saga, nor does it make a case for the transition to comics as something special or valuable for this particular tale. The back-up features, which expand on elements of the DT world's mythos (in text pieces written by series plotter/King associate Robin Furth) are dry and boring, and read like appendices to bad, overly detailed fantasy novels. Furthermore, they do so much overexplaining that, once again, they take the fun out of what started out as pulpy, exciting fantasy/Western novels.

Maybe this overdoing of everything is just a symptom of what the DT franchise has become; this series is certainly no worse than the interminable, meandering final DT novel. But with all the hype and the long production cycle and the talent involved, I think I was hoping for something more than airy, emotionless walking on eggshells around a living legend of a writer whose best work has always been messy, raw and unplanned.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Movies opening this week

The Bourne Ultimatum (Matt Damon, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Julia Stiles, dir. Paul Greengrass)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
As much as I enjoyed this film, I really hope they don't take the success and critical acclaim as a sign that they need to extend the franchise beyond its breaking point. The original author is dead and someone is writing new novels, so there's certainly a precedent for exploitation. But this movie ties up everything neatly and satisfyingly, with breakneck excitement along the way, and it'd be nice to see a blockbuster series go out on top for once. Wide release

Talk to Me (Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen, dir. Kasi Lemmons)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
There has to be someone who can make a good biopic without resorting to these really tired formulas. These movies aren't usually bad, but they're not usually all that good, either, and the more of them there are the more tiresome the formula seems. At some point even all the good acting in the world isn't doing much of a service to these interesting people whose lives deserve to be depicted a little more honestly. Opened limited July 13; in Las Vegas this week