Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Fall TV update: dramas

Just in time for the midseason stuff to get rolling.

Brothers & Sisters (ABC)
I've been slowly losing interest in this show, which had a real jump-the-shark moment last season when it was revealed that Rebecca wasn't actually the long-lost Walker half-sibling, merely so that she could then get it on with her heretofore assumed half-brother Justin (as absurd as this sounds if you've never watched the show, it was nearly as absurd to longtime viewers). This show has always straddled a line between earnest family drama and lifestyle-porn soap opera, and it seems to be trending further and further in the soap direction. This season has brought a search for a new long-lost half-sibling, a paternity crisis and a little baby in peril. Now rumor has it that Balthazar Getty has been dumped from the show, and while his character is indeed useless, I don't know that I can sit through some drawn-out grieving process if they kill him off. A bunch of returning shows (Lost, Friday Night Lights, Damages, The Closer) that I want to watch are about to come back, and there are a few new ones I want to check out as well, so this may just end up being sacrificed to clear up the schedule a bit.

Chuck (NBC)
Although a lot of people seem to find the current second season of this show a great improvement, I think it's about as amusing and insubstantial as the first, which is to say that I thoroughly enjoy it but rarely get excited about it. That's about right for a show like this - it's pure fun entertainment, with a handful of nice emotional moments. The plots often don't make sense, the character development is minimal, and the dialogue can be hokey, but there is enough in the way of rousing action, funny one-liners, appealing eye-candy and romantic entanglements to hold my attention.

Fringe (Fox)
This is another show that is never quite at the top of my to-watch list, but still has enough going for it that I come back every week. It has yet to transcend its X-Files-meets-Alias origins; virtually every cold open could double as an X-Files teaser, and the vast conspiracy is so vague and all-consuming that I worry it will turn out to be as convoluted and nonsensical as the ones on those other two shows became. Still, a lot of the mysteries are pretty creepy, there are some interesting background nuggets being doled out about the various characters, and John Noble is always entertaining as the addled-yet-mysterious Walter Bishop. I remain hopeful that, with patience, this will turn into a great show rather than just a decent pastiche.

Gossip Girl (The CW)
I think I've been beating the drum for this show pretty incessantly, but every week reminds me of just how good it is. Along with 30 Rock and Pushing Daisies, it's been the thing I most look forward to watching each week, and it's easily surpassed Josh Schwartz's last rich-teens drama, The O.C. There's been no similar second-season decline in quality; if anything, the show's only gotten better, with richer character development, juicier plot twists and stronger dialogue. The interplay between Chuck and Blair is masterful, and Leighton Meester constantly impresses me with her portrayal of Blair. I know for some people the notion of a teen soap is too much to get past, but if you're open to it, this really is one of the best shows on TV.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)
This show is about to depart the airwaves (the final three episodes are currently TBA on ABC's schedule, although they've been produced, so even if the network axes them altogether they'll at least end up on DVD), and I'm really sad to see it go. It took me a while to warm up to Bryan Fuller's quirky, cutesy vision, but this season has been consistently excellent, with nearly as much clever quippery as 30 Rock, plus an intriguing ongoing mystery and engaging standalone stories. In short, it's unique, great TV, which means I probably shouldn't be surprised it got canceled. There's really no point in trying to jump on board now, but this is absolutely something to look for on DVD (and it will end up with only 22 episodes total, making it easy to plow through the whole series quickly).

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Movies opening this week

Bedtime Stories (Adam Sandler, Keri Russell, Guy Pearce, dir. Adam Shankman)
I've never been a Sandler fan, but even people who love his style of humor will probably be bored with this neutered kiddie flick. Sandler sleepwalks through the whole thing like he's just waiting to cash a check, the effects work is lazily uncreative, and there is a disturbing CGI guinea pig with giant eyes who has no reason to exist. At least You Don't Mess With the Zohan had a point, of sorts. Wide release

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, dir. David Fincher)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This one seems to have lost its Oscar-frontrunner status to Slumdog Millionaire, although I think it will probably still end up getting plenty of attention come nomination time. It's also been subject to a bit of a backlash, which I think is interesting in the context of Fincher's career. Last year, Zodiac was neglected by the studios and shunned by audiences, and it was taken up by many critics (myself included) as a rallying point. This year, Fincher's new movie is being derided as a cliched Hollywood product by some (although most reviews have been positive), and thoroughly embraced by the studio system. And while it may be warmer and more accessible, I still think Benjamin Button is very much in line thematically and stylistically with Fincher's other work. Its epic love story is surrounded by the constant spectre of mortality, and Fincher's expert craftsmanship is always on display. I found Zodiac more complex, more challenging and ultimately more rewarding, but I still think this is another triumph for Fincher. Wide release

Doubt (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, dir. John Patrick Shanley)
I'm sure this works much better on stage, where its boldface allegory can be viewed as symbolism rather than realism. Set in an actual place and an actual time period, this schematic story of a Catholic priest who may or may not have molested a young boy and the nun determined to bring him down comes off as clumsy and artificial. The actors give it their all, and occasionally manage to make the characters seem close to human, but most of the time they speak and act as if they ought to be walking around with big signs labeled "Doubt," "Faith" and "Certainty." Opened limited December 12; in Las Vegas this week

Frost/Nixon (Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, dir. Ron Howard)
This movie is about 90 minutes of setup for one great 15-minute showdown, when Frost actually engages Nixon seriously about the Watergate crimes, and Nixon responds with anger and regret. In those moments, Langella and Sheen live up to the promise of a monumental face-off, but the rest of the movie is just another bland Ron Howard's Great Moments in American History project, as competent and dull as a book report. Opened limited December 5; in Las Vegas this week

I've Loved You So Long (Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, dir. Philippe Claudel)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Thomas gets as much mileage as she can out of her performance here, but otherwise this is the slightly arty French version of a Lifetime "stalwart mother endures injustice" movie. She'll probably get an Oscar nomination and then not win, and then everyone will deservedly cease caring about this thoroughly mediocre movie. Opened limited October 24; in Las Vegas this week

The Spirit (Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, dir. Frank Miller)
I've never really followed Miller's comics career, although I have of course read The Dark Knight Returns, and I read 300 before seeing the movie. His reputation as a comics creator has taken quite the beating in recent years, and this movie seems to be an extension of that descent into self-parody, with its emphasis on absurd hard-boiled dialogue, bizarre non sequiturs and extreme objectification of women. I liked the Sin City movie, but it featured a style very particular to its subject matter, and slapping that same aesthetic on something else doesn't really work. Miller seems determined to carve out a career as a filmmaker (he's already attached to a proposed Buck Rogers movie), but this is not exactly a promising start. Wide release

Valkyrie (Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, dir. Bryan Singer)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
The hype on this movie has been so negative for so long that people may be dismissing it before giving it much consideration, but it's actually a pretty good thriller with a surprising amount of suspense. Cruise is miscast, sure, but not egregiously, and Singer's choice to let the actors all use their natural voices is smart. They're not speaking German anyway, so why bother with distracting accents? That always bugs me in movies like this, so I was happy to see at least one director take the pragmatic route. This is well-crafted entertainment; it's not particularly profound despite its subject matter, but it's definitely worth seeing. Wide release

Monday, December 22, 2008

The alternate top 10

I'll have the requisite top 10 list of this year's movies in Las Vegas Weekly this coming week, and will probably do a post here elaborating a bit on it. But in the meantime I thought I'd steal an idea from an AV Club commenter and make an alternate list, of the top 10 movies from other years that I saw for the first time this year.

1. Quiet City (Aaron Katz, 2007) Okay, so this is only from last year, but I didn't get around to it in time to put it on my 2007 top 10, where it certainly would have found a place. I haven't seen that many mumblecore movies (and the Duplass brothers' 2008 effort, Baghead, disappointed me), but this is easily my favorite of the movement, a lovely, touching story of emotional connection in New York City. More thoughts in my original post.
2. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940) As I noted in my post about this movie, I sometimes have a tough time with the ingrained sexism of old screwball comedies, even more so than melodramas or musicals or various other genres. I think it's easier to view outdated moral codes as interesting curiosities when you're not meant to be laughing along with them. It didn't bother me much in this film, or at least it was greatly outweighed by the wonderful writing and acting, which make things go down much easier.
3. Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi, 2007) Yes, another one from last year, but damn there were so many good movies last year, and I just didn't get to all of them in time. This is such a lovely coming-of-age story, a beautifully animated film that preserves the look of the graphic novel it's based on while also carving out its own identity. I love seeing a story about conflicts in the Middle East filtered through one person's specific experiences, which somehow makes it all seem more real than a meticulously researched journalistic documentary.
4. Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941) This is the rare movie that almost constantly surprised me from start to finish; even though it was fairly obvious where it was all going to end up, the road getting there was not at all what I expected. It's sort of amazing that Sturges was able to get this kind of multi-level satire into a Hollywood movie in the 1940s. He brilliantly has it both ways by making a movie about how social realism is worthless, and filmmakers should just make comedies instead, and then filling the movie with plenty of unflinching social realism amidst the comedy. Veronica Lake is mesmerizing as the love interest/sidekick, and the writing is constantly razor-sharp. It's no surprise that the Coen brothers used an allusion to this movie as the title to O Brother, Where Art Thou?; it's exactly the kind of audacious genre mash-up that they're known for making.

5. Original Sin (Michael Cristofer, 2001) "The Wild Things of 19th-century Cuba," I called this movie when I posted about it, and you should know that Wild Things is one of my very favorite movies. Angelina Jolie tried for sexy and dangerous again this year in Wanted (before going back to dour and serious for Changeling), but she lacked the verve and abandon she exhibits in this movie, a luxuriously lurid and campy tale of sex and betrayal. It's gloriously over-the-top and start-to-finish entertaining, and seriously deserves to build a cult following.
6. I Walked With a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) I watched this just after writing up my post on the two versions of Cat People for the Val Lewton blogathon; this is another Lewton movie directed by Jacques Tourneur, who made Cat People, and like Cat People, it's a subtle, atmospheric take on a familiar horror idea. What we think of as zombies are not exactly what show up in this movie; this is more about voodoo priests taking control of people, as in the underrated Wes Craven movie The Serpent and the Rainbow. Tourneur uses zombification as a way to explore colonialism and white guilt, and manages a number of understated and unsettling moments along the way.
7. Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minelli, 1944) I'm working on gaining a better appreciation of old musicals, and I think Judy Garland may just singlehandedly bring me around. I watched the entirely superfluous Garland musical The Harvey Girls a year or two ago, and had plenty of fun with it even though it was consistently mediocre, thanks to Garland's radiant charisma and lovely singing (also Angela Lansbury as an evil showgirl). And I liked the spectacle of Minnelli's Gigi, even if I didn't really connect with it. But this one works on all levels, as a colorful spectacle and as a showcase for Garland's singing and as a melancholy story of growing up and apart. It's a movie that envelops you and sometimes even overwhelms you, and I imagine it's a magical experience on a big screen.

8. Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955) A sort of anti-Western, with Spencer Tracy as the lone-gunman hero, only he's past middle age and crippled and more interested in legal documents than gunfights. He walks into a typically corrupt frontier town and for most of the movie just has a lot of tense conversations with people. Sturges builds suspense over these exchanges and the mystery of what horrible secret the townspeople are hiding, and even though the reveal hinges on a bit of clumsy social commentary, the final showdown manages to be both exciting and a bit hollow, leaving you with as much bitterness as hope.
9. Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005) I had this sitting around for months and finally got up the motivation to watch it after seeing Wright's Atonement, a marvelously directed, visually stunning movie whose parts don't necessarily add up to a satisfying whole. Pride is less visually showy than Atonement, but it still looks wonderful, and it's not as gauzy and fluttery as some Jane Austen adaptations. A former college classmate of mine who is an Austen scholar absolutely hates this movie, I think partially for the way it adds excessive "grit" to the novel's story, but it's been so long since I read the book that I doubt I noticed the differences or the similarities. I can only compare it to other movies that come from similar source material, and in that sense I appreciated the bit of grit, the way that the story is about country life during that time period and not just about romance. Romance is key, too, but it's the intersection of love and the practical demands of life that this movie really highlights.

10. The Divorcee (Robert Z. Leonard, 1930) I did a freelance project that required me to watch a bunch of pre-Hays Code melodramas, and this was the best of the lot, a vehicle for the underrated Norma Shearer (of whom Dan Callahan wrote an excellent appreciation). Shearer plays a refreshingly independent (y'know, for the 1930s) woman who divorces her cheating husband and then goes on to live it up on her own terms. There's quite a bit of racy material here (which of course seems pretty tame from our perspective), and Shearer gives an assured, saucy performance, radiating confidence both socially and sexually. Of course, even a pre-Code movie puts the independent woman back in her place by the end, but until then this movie is progressive and exciting.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Movies opening this week

Hear me chat about these movies (as well as a number of upcoming Christmas releases, since next week's show will be a year-end wrap-up) with Jeffrey K. Howard of Vegas Film Critic in this week's Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast.

Seven Pounds (Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Michael Ealy, dir. Gabriele Muccino)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This is one of those movies that about 10 minutes in I knew I was going to absolutely hate. It's so insufferably self-important and phony, and makes use of the intolerable device of holding back information for no reason other than to fuck with the audience. If you laid all the events in this movie out end to end, it would be so laughable that no one could take it seriously. But shrouded in mystery and bathed with that low, ominous score, it takes on all sorts of false importance. I overheard someone at a screening recently say that a friend of theirs found this movie life-changing, but I feel sorry for anyone whose life is so empty that this movie could give it meaning (although obviously the movie has its passionate fans, several of whom have left nasty comments on my review). Wide release

Slumdog Millionaire (Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Irfan Khan, Anil Kapoor, dir. Danny Boyle)
I liked this movie, although not as much as a lot of people did (it's getting plenty of Best Picture awards from critics' groups), but certain things about it did nag me a little and strike me as false. Boyle keeps the movie visually inventive and fast-paced, and the depictions of poverty in Mumbai often feel quite authentic. But I don't know if they jibe with the grandiose movie-movie story, which is unrealistic and corny and even a little repetitive at times. Patel is kind of bland as the older Jamal, but the kid actors are great, and the flashbacks work well, especially if you block out some of the cheesier contrivances in the game-show stuff. It's a flawed movie, but overall I think it got to me, and while it won't be on my list of the best movies of the year, I wouldn't be upset to see it win big at the Oscars. Opened limited November 12; in Las Vegas this week

Yes Man (Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, dir. Peyton Reed)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I root for Jim Carrey, I really do. I think he can be an excellent dramatic actor - The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are two of my favorite movies. And I also think he can be quite funny at times. But like Mike Myers, he seems to be desperately holding on to the same old schtick, which is no longer nearly as funny as it once was (and seems sort of hollow the more he trots it out). There's only a minimum of mugging Carrey in this movie, though, and it's less grating than I would have expected. The laughs are only occasional, but if you have a soft spot for old Carrey comedies like Liar, Liar (which has a similar premise), then you might get some enjoyment out of this one. Wide release

Friday, December 12, 2008

Movies opening this week

The LVW web people have the day off, so the podcast, with Roger Erik Tinch of CineVegas, should be up on Monday.

Dark Streets (Gabriel Mann, Bijou Phillips, Izabella Miko, dir. Rachel Samuels)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I saw this movie almost six months ago, back at CineVegas, and to be honest I was very tired at the time. I may have briefly dozed off at certain points during the movie. However, it probably didn't hurt, since the best you can say about this movie is that it has a pleasing dreamlike quality. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense as a narrative, but I did like the visual style, the music, the costumes and the set design, enough at least to make it stand out from the deluge of poorly made films that one encounters at a festival. Critics have been pretty brutal, and maybe I would have been less forgiving had I not seen it at a festival, but I think this movie deserves a little better. Limited release

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Jaden Smith, dir. Scott Derrickson)
I actually liked Derrickson's last movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, quite a lot, even though most critics didn't, but this one is a complete failure. It loses the intelligence of the original (whose subject of nuclear disarmament was timely in 1951 but wouldn't really be so now) and replaces it with some so-so special effects and lots of pointless explosions. The message about the environment is vague and noncommittal, and Klaatu's reversal on the point of whether humanity ought to be exterminated is seriously undermotivated. The movie's emotional core ought to come from the connection between Connelly's scientist character and her stepson (Smith), but he comes off mostly as a brat, and I never cared about what happened to them. Connelly gave an excellent and underrated performance in an effects-heavy blockbuster (Ang Lee's Hulk) a few years ago, but here she just coasts (Reeves does play to his strengths as an alien who doesn't understand human behavior, though). Wide release

JCVD (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Francois Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, dir. Mabrouk El Mechri)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I was a huge Van Damme fan back in middle school, although it's probably been close to 15 years since I actually watched one of his movies. Still, I was looking forward to this being a great movie that perpetrates his redemption, and it's only about half that. Sure, Van Damme does a pretty good job, helped mostly, I think, by the chance to act in his native language for once (after 20 years he still doesn't quite have a grasp on English). And the moments where he talks openly about the things he has to deal with in his life are fascinating. But they're all wrapped up in this thoroughly uninteresting hostage thriller, which is just like the plot of a lame Van Damme movie, and not in a clever way. Watching Van Damme's much-hyped fourth-wall-breaking monologue, I couldn't help think that a documentary about the guy would have been more interesting than this pretentious, hit-and-miss movie. Opened limited November 7; in Las Vegas this week

Sunday, December 07, 2008

TV premiering tonight: Leverage

TNT's quest to compete with the broadcast networks in volume of original programming has led to plenty of generic crap over the last few years, but Leverage ends up being a cut above. Some reviews have compared it to USA's Burn Notice, and that's a good benchmark, although Burn Notice is much more entertaining. This show likewise has a group of slightly shady characters doing good deeds via nefarious means, although it's more of an ensemble show than Burn Notice is, and it doesn't have that added conspiracy element. Timothy Hutton plays an ex-insurance investigator with a boo-hoo back story (the company he worked for denied his son an experimental medical treatment, and his son died) who now has it out for evil corporations and anyone exploiting the little people. He and his team of thieves, con artists and thugs do good by doing bad.

The show has a zippy tone and an occasionally overbearing score that screams "this is whimsical," and its plots are pretty well divorced from reality. But I had fun watching the first two episodes in a sort of turn-off-your-brain kind of way, which is exactly how I felt about Burn Notice at first. That show has done some pretty impressive character development and put together an interesting overarching plot, so maybe this show will get there as well. Even with the crowded schedule at the moment (it'd be much easier watching this during the summer), I'll probably continue to give it a chance. TNT, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.; special premiere tonight at 10 p.m.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Movies opening this week

Hear me chat about these movies with my good friend Jason Harris of the Frat Boys of Comedy in the triumphant return of the Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast. (Actually, maybe not so triumphant - the second half appears to be missing. Should be fixed by Monday.)

Cadillac Records (Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Columbus Short, Beyoncé Knowles, dir. Darnell Martin)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Not knowing a whole lot (read: knowing nothing) about pioneering R&B record label Chess, I came into this movie hoping to learn something and gain a little insight. But the film is perfunctory and apparently not very historically accurate, so all I really got out of it was the chance to hear some decent music, albeit not sung by the original performers. I'm not sure what the best way would be for filmmakers to make movies about real-life people without falling into biopic formula, but combining several movies' worth of the same clichés into one certainly isn't the answer. Wide release

Milk (Sean Penn, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, dir. Gus Van Sant)
And speaking of biopic formula, here's our requisite critically overpraised Important Biopic just in time for Oscar season. This is a better movie than Cadillac Records, certainly, generally well-acted and solidly constructed, but it still hits all the expected beats in a pretty generic way. Van Sant has spent the last several years making ponderous, arty, sometimes interesting movies in a style that embraces long takes and minimal dialogue, but here he's in full-on mainstream mode, and aside from a handful of stylistic flourishes, this is a pretty anonymous Hollywood product. Unlike Cadillac Records, this movie does actually provide some interesting historical insight, although certain moments are clearly engineered for filmic convenience. I wouldn't object to seeing Penn get an Oscar nomination for this, but I wouldn't call it anything close to one of the best movies of the year. Opened limited November 26; in Las Vegas this week

Punisher: War Zone (Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, dir. Lexi Alexander)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Under no circumstances would I call this a good movie, but I did laugh several times at the absurd, campy violence. I am the kind of person who can definitely find the humor in someone getting their face punched off, so your mileage may vary. But as far as dumb, heavily stylized action goes, this was in fact sort of entertaining at times. Wide release

Friday, November 28, 2008

Movies opening this week

(No podcast again this week because of the holiday; it'll be back next week. Also, I missed all of notable new releases due to being out of town last week.)

The Dukes (Robert Davi, Chazz Palminteri, Elya Baskin, dir. Robert Davi)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It's sort of sad that Davi's life's ambition has resulted in such a mediocre movie, but I guess on the other hand it's heartwarming that after years of toiling away in the character-actor trenches, he finally got to make his passion project. Either way, his personal journey is probably more interesting than this lame, forgettable movie. Opened limited November 14; in Las Vegas this week

Let the Right One In (Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, dir. Thomas Alfredson)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I've been reading about this movie for months now, and often movies like that tend to be disappointing by the time I get around to seeing them. But this one is about as effective as everyone said it would be, and a nice contrast to last week's crappy but much more popular vampire movie Twilight (I had actually hoped they'd bump this up a week so I could have written a combo review of the two). It nicely connects vampirism to a metaphor for outsider status and lost innocence without hammering home the allegory like so many lame vampire stories do. It's genuinely creepy and genuinely touching, and doesn't cop out when following through on the consequences of its horrific subject matter. It's just a well-made movie, vampires or no vampires. I can't wait to see how the forthcoming American remake screws it all up. Opened limited October 24; in Las Vegas this week

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Fall TV update: comedies

30 Rock (NBC)
Despite the fact that this season is packed with famous guest stars in an apparently futile effort to juice the ratings, their presence hasn't detracted from the continued overall quality. I would say that they've even added something to the mix almost every time. Tina Fey's increased popularity hasn't affected the caliber of the writing or the density of the jokes one bit, and the character development gets deeper and often more tragic with each episode. Liz Lemon's lonely, sad life is truthful and even touching at times, and her relationship with Jack likewise has unexpected layers. There are also plenty of rapid-fire off-kilter jokes, and the acting from the entire cast is subtle and hilarious. I still like this show at least as much as I did when it first started.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)
I loved this show so much when it first premiered that I think I've judged it pretty harshly as it's gone downhill. But this just-concluded season (over quickly thanks to several weeks of double episodes) continues the slide in quality, and I don't know if they'll ever recapture the magic of the early episodes. Part of that is because the shock of the novelty of the humor has long since worn off, and that's not something it's possible to re-create. But part of it is also, I think, that the lack of novelty has pushed them to be even more and more outrageous, more and more absurd, and the show has descended into a cartoon. Not that it was ever realistic in the first place, but what was funny about those early episodes was often that the horrible things the characters were doing came out of some twisted versions of genuine human desires. That kind of motivation shines through occasionally now, but mostly it's just a bunch of idiots doing horrible things for no reason. Some of it's funny sometimes, but more often it's strained and trying too hard. I'm glad that FX has been supportive, but the more episodes they require the creators to churn out, the more the quality's diluted. I wish they'd go back to shorter seasons and be able to have the main three actor/writers keep full control as they did in the beginning. I'll probably keep watching, but the spark has really gone.

My Name Is Earl (NBC)
I had been ready to give up on this show after last season's parade of mediocrity, and the lengthy digressions into Earl's stint in jail and his coma. But writing about comedies for About requires me to watch more sitcoms than I normally might, so I figured I'd stick with Earl for now, and I'm glad I did. The show is still not nearly as good as it was in its first season, but it's greatly improved, with a renewed focus on the original concept of Earl going down his list and crossing off items. The supporting players who were cut off from the main action while Earl was in jail get their chances to shine again, and there are no heavy long-running storylines. The jokes still aren't quite as strong, and the sentimentality can be a little much at times, but I still enjoy myself almost every week, and that's not something I would have imagined last season.

Samantha Who? (ABC)
I very rarely laugh at this show anymore, but I still enjoy watching it. It's one of those shows that's just warm and inviting; I like the characters, and I like seeing what goes on with them, and even if I don't laugh out loud, I generally have a fun time watching the show (although this past week's egregious product placement for a certain Baz Luhrmann movie did turn me off). Christina Applegate is charming as Samantha, and the relationship comedy is gentle but affecting. I suppose I'd prefer a few more laughs in each episode, but in general I can settle for having a contented smile for the entire show.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Movies opening this week

(No podcast this week, as I am actually out of town.)

Bolt (Voices of John Travolta, Susie Essman, Miley Cyrus, Robert Walton, dir. Chris Williams and Byron Howard)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This isn't quite as snooze-inducing as Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, but it's pretty dull and forgettable nonetheless. Inoffensive and semi-entertaining are high standards for kids' movies, sadly, and this is one that you could certainly take children to without worrying about it sending them the wrong message or wanting to gouge your own eyes out. Otherwise, easily skipped. Wide release

Synecdoche, New York (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, dir. Charlie Kaufman)
I still don't quite know what to make of Charlie Kaufman, who wrote one of my favorite movies of all time (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) but also penned the maddeningly precious, smug Adaptation. Here he's working without either of his regular collaborators (directors Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry), and their senses of whimsy and wonder are sometimes sorely missing from this dark, pessimistic and ambitious movie about artistic failure. I love a lot of what Gondry's done without Kaufman, and at times this movie seems too bleak, too heavy, too concerned with big ideas and not nearly as playful as what Gondry and Jonze (and even George Clooney) have done with Kaufman's work in the past. But for the first two-thirds or so I was really with this movie, through all the seriousness and the dourness, because it's actually very funny in a cynical way, and very real in its depiction of artistic frustration and regret. Hoffman captures the kind of hopelessness that comes with wanting to do something great and important with one's life but not knowing what that is or how to accomplish it, and the supporting actresses all convey the frustrations of romantic relationships with people who are never satisfied with anything they've done. And then somewhere around the 90-minute mark, the movie just drifts off into its own world; the thorny but discernible plot becomes inscrutable, characters lose their central motivations, and the themes get vaguer and vaguer until it's all just a morose march to the end. I wish I could give a love or hate response to this movie as so many people have, but the best I can do is tempered enthusiasm. Opened limited October 24; in Las Vegas this week

Twilight (Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, dir. Catherine Hardwicke)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Generally I don't find it necessary to read the source material for movies based on novels; the film versions should be able to stand on their own. But with certain cultural phenomena, it seems wise to get a grounding in the original in order to make an informed critique of the adaptation. So, for example, I read The Da Vinci Code, The Golden Compass and the first two Narnia novels before reviewing those movies, and thus I also diligently read the insanely popular Twilight, a 500-page monstrosity of a romance novel that drips with retrograde sexism and horribly written purple prose. Twilight the novel, written by a Mormon housewife, is sort of fascinatingly awful in the way it contructs a fantasy relationship in which the woman has no personality or will of her own, and her semi-abusive, much older boyfriend merely tells her what to do because he always knows what's best (and constantly warns her to be careful because he might "accidentally" harm her). It's rather sickening that the book's legion of overwhelmingly female fans could hold up Edward and Bella's relationship as some sort of ideal, and perhaps a sign of a deep strain of romantic conservatism that can only be expressed via fantasy stories. I think I probably would have been more satisfied writing a review of Twilight the novel, since while the movie does replicate many of these disturbing issues, it's mostly just a bland, crappy teen movie, not worthy of the attention (either positive or negative) that has so consumed the novel and its sequels. Wide release

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Movies opening this week

(Hear me chat about all things Bond, plus a couple of other topics, with my Las Vegas Weekly co-worker T.R. Witcher in this week's Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast.)

Quantum of Solace (Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench, dir. Marc Forster)
As I say on the podcast, I'm not much of a Bond aficionado. Before seeing Casino Royale, I'd only seen a single Bond movie (Pierce Brosnan in Tomorrow Never Dies), and I found Royale to be a little disappointing, since my idea of a Bond movie involved lots of one-liners and gadgets. I liked a lot of the action in Royale, but it seemed a little bloated and meandering, so I really appreciated the streamlined, full-speed-ahead approach of this movie. Forster isn't known as an action guy (and can be kind of a hack, really), but he pulls off a number of strong action sequences and chases here, while making sure to pay attention to the emotional core of the story (Bond's fruitless search for closure via vengeance). I wasn't expecting jokes and gadgets this time around, so I wasn't disappointed on that front, but I would have liked a little more time with the two Bond girls (especially Gemma Arterton, who's only in a handful of scenes). Overall, this is a solid, well-made action movie, one that could fairly easily have been a non-Bond outing. That may be a negative for some, but I think once you get past expectations, you'll be very satisfied. Wide release

Friday, November 07, 2008

Alphabetical favorites

The latest list-making craze making the blog rounds is to name a favorite movie starting with each letter of the alphabet. Since I of course love making lists, I present to you my version. Making lists like this always exposes me to how clustered my favorites are around a certain time period (the mid-'90s), and how many serious blind spots I still have (I very much need to bone up on movies whose titles begin with the letter Y, for example).

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Big Lebowski, The (Joel Coen, 1998)
Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994)
Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)
Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997)
Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1989)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)
James and the Giant Peach (Henry Selick, 1996)
Kicking and Screaming (Noah Baumbauch, 1995)
Lone Star (John Sayles, 1996)
Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Quick Change (Bill Murray & Howard Franklin, 1990)
Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991)
Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan, 2000)
Virgin Suicides, The (Sofia Coppola, 2000)
Wild Things (John McNaughton, 1998)
X2: X-Men United (Bryan Singer, 2003)
Young Adam (David Mackenzie, 2003)
Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

(Other notable lists: Karina Longworth at Spout, many House Next Door regulars, and the ur-post at Blog Cabins.)

Movies opening this week

(No podcast this week, due to circumstances beyond my control - i.e., guest flakiness.)

Happy-Go-Lucky (Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, dir. Mike Leigh)
After a serious drought of good movies in 2008 (I struggled to come up with a top-five-so-far list for a local publication a couple of weeks ago), two of the best I've seen all year are coming to Vegas this week. This is one of them, an absolutely stellar character study with the kind of deep, resonant acting that Leigh is known for fostering. Some have dismissed this movie as a trifle, perhaps because it's not as outwardly somber as most of Leigh's films (which can be horribly depressing). But I think there's a deceptive seriousness to the story, and Leigh engages in a really incisive look at what it takes not only to be happy but also to maintain happiness in the face of others' negativity. Poppy is not a superficial character, and Hawkins does a great job of giving her a genuine humanity without having to resort to portraying some "darkness" beneath her chipper demeanor. You watch the whole movie expecting some other shoe to drop, some tragedy to come along and puncture the happiness, but the fact that it doesn't is one of the things that makes this such a great movie. Sometimes life is tragic and depressing, but for many people life is pleasant even through the struggles, and very few filmmakers can portray that with such honesty and directness. Opened limited October 10; in Las Vegas this week

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (Voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, dir. Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Zzzzzzz...pointless animated sequel...zzzzzzzz.... Wide release

Rachel Getting Married (Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, dir. Jonathan Demme)
Here's this week's other great movie, another joyous character study (albeit tempered with much more sadness) featuring great acting. Plot-wise, this film could have easily tipped into Lifetime-movie territory, what with the drug addict upstaging her sister at her own wedding, the dark family secret that gets shockingly revealed, the interfamily squabbles. But all of that is handled so naturally and subtly that it comes off as moving and real rather than contrived, and the performances are perfectly well-rounded and intimate. The scene where Hathaway's Kym reveals said dark secret is truly moving and cathartic, and then only a little while later there's this raucous, fun wedding that Demme shoots like an actual wedding video. That's a compliment to the movie - I really felt like I had spent time with these people after seeing the movie, and ended up loving them despite all their flaws, just like how they feel about each other. Opened limited October 3; in Las Vegas this week

Repo! The Genetic Opera (Alexa Vega, Anthony Stewart Head, Paul Sorvino, dir. Darren Lynn Bousman)
Objectively, I know that this isn't a very good movie, but it definitely appealed to my 14-year-old Hot Topic shopper within. It's trying too hard to be some new camp classic, and the music isn't as memorable as it ought to be, but there are some very creative and entertaining moments, and I think Bousman (veteran of three Saw movies) has the right aesthetic for this sort of thing. Moreover, if any sort of musical renaissance is going to take place, we need more than new movie versions of musty Brodway shows, musical takes on non-musical movies, and jukebox musicals. What we need are new, original productions, and in that sense this falls in the same category as High School Musical 3: It's deeply flawed and in many ways a poor imitation of acknowledged genre milestones (in this case, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Sweeney Todd), but it's embracing the musical as a vibrant form and trying to do something current with it, and I respect that. Despite its goth familiarity and heavy-metal-lite soundtrack, this really isn't like anything else at the movies, and fans of horror, camp, rock operas and Paris Hilton's face melting off will probably find at least something to like. Limited release

Role Models (Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott, Christoper Mintz-Plasse, Bobb'e J. Thompson, dir. David Wain)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This movie has gotten a surprising number of positive reviews; maybe critics are just inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Wain and Rudd. I am, too, actually, but there's not enough benefit here to outweigh the transparently by-the-numbers story and repetitive jokes. I suppose everyone has to pay the bills, so I don't begrudge Rudd and Wain (or any of the State folks) the occasional mainstream gig. I just wish they could have done something slightly more original with it. Wide release

Sunday, November 02, 2008

My life in comic-book stores

Earlier this week, I learned that the comic-book store I'd been frequenting for over a decade, Dreamwell Comics here in Las Vegas, would be closing immediately, and under tragic circumstances (which unfortunately I can't really go into here). Any dedicated comic-book fan knows that it's pretty much inevitable to form friendships with the people behind the counter at your local comics shop; there aren't any national chain comic-book stores, and almost all shops across the country are small operations run by their owners. In Dreamwell's case, those owners were Don and Tim Karter, brothers who owned and ran the shop for nearly 21 years (it was the oldest comics shop in Vegas before closing). The Karters were great friends and helpful retailers, always happy to order me whatever comics I was looking for, and giving me fair trades on individual issues for collected editions. They were big movie fans, and every week we'd talk about the new releases. I'll miss chatting with them as much as I'll miss buying comics from them.

This rather traumatic experience got me thinking about my history with comic-book stores, and how probably most lifelong comics devotees can chart the stages of their lives by the store they frequented at the time. I've been a regular patron of seven comic-book stores (two of which were branches of the same store) since I started collecting at around age 12. The first was Heroes & Legends, in Agoura Hills, California, where I was living at the time. I remember a clerk there who I believe was named Paul, who was always happy to find me whatever stupid foil-cover monstrosity I was looking for, since that was how I based my purchasing choices back then (remember, I was 12, and it was the speculation-happy '90s). I remember him going in the back and getting me a copy of Silver Surfer #75 that was on hold, and that made me feel very special (of course, I can't remember a single thing about what was actually in that issue).

I think Heroes & Legends must have closed, although I don't remember for sure, but I do know that I then started going to Pee Wee Comics, also in Agoura Hills, which apparently closed in 2004 and is now only online. Pee Wee was a bigger store, with two or three locations at the time, and I don't remember getting to know any of the clerks particularly well, but I did feel a sense of belonging by going there, since it was a nexus for all the local comics geeks. In 1994, I bought a Pee Wee Comics 10th Anniversary T-shirt, which advertised a fake "world tour" on the back, with stops including the cities where they had stores as well as fictional locations like Metropolis, Gotham City and the Savage Land. Like many T-shirts I bought in my teens, it's still part of my wardrobe; a year or two ago I was wearing it at some car place waiting for my tires to get replaced, and the clerk started talking to me about how he used to go to Pee Wee Comics when he lived in California. Comic-book stores can create bonding experiences like that.

In 1995, when I was 15, we moved to Las Vegas, and I started going to the comic-book store that was closest to my house, a place called The Outer Limits. In retrospect, I probably should have realized something was off about this place, since their model for the common subscription service (or pull list, in nerd parlance) was to have customers go through Previews (Diamond's ordering catalog), fill out a list of what they wanted each month, and pay for it in advance, either half or in full. Then each week you would get the books you'd ordered and not have to pay. First of all, many comics come out late, so it's got to be hard to keep track of what you've paid for and when it's coming out; something might even get cancelled after being solicited. More worrisome was the fact that nearly every week I would come in, they would hand me my books, and I would scan the shelves and notice something else I had ordered and have to ask for it. And they'd go look it up, and give it to me, but if I hadn't remembered to ask I wouldn't have gotten it. Other than that they were very friendly; I remember they were big on collectible card games, and once gave me a free Magic starter pack to try to get me into it. It didn't work, but I appreciated the gesture.

Then one day I showed up to get my comics and the place was closed, with just a note on the door saying they had shut down. I think there was a number to call, but it was either disconnected or a voicemail with no one to call me back. I don't even know how much of my money they made off with for comics that hadn't come in yet, or how much they got from other customers. Again, it seems naive in retrospect, and I probably should have tried to take them to small-claims court or something, but I had no record of what I had spent. I was working at the B. Dalton bookstore in a local mall, and one day the former Outer Limits owner came in. I stopped him and told him that he owed me money, and he acted all apologetic and said they were trying to pay back all the old customers. He asked me to write down my number so he could call me. Once again very naively, I gave him my number but didn't take his, and of course never heard from him again.

After that experience, I decided to be more careful, so I looked in the phone book for comic-book stores and drove around to several that were near my house. Dreamwell ended up seeming like the best; they were friendly and welcoming, and when I told them about my Outer Limits experience, they told me about how those guys had opened up several stores and done the same thing, that it was some ongoing scam. This somehow made me feel better about myself, that I wasn't the only one who got duped. So I started going to Dreamwell regularly, and over time became friends with the Karters. When I went away to college, I always came back to Dreamwell during breaks, and they were happy to start my pull list back up for me when I was home for a few weeks or a few months.

When I travelled around looking at various colleges, one of the things I invariably asked during the interview process when they ask if you have any questions for them was whether there was a comic-book store nearby (I think this appalled my dad, who took me on the trip and has never really understood the appeal of comics). I eventually ended up going to Amherst College, which had a comic-book store conveniently located right in the town of Amherst, within walking distance of my dorm. I don't remember the exact name, but it was a branch of the store just down the highway in the Hampshire Mall in South Hadley, which according to the mall's website carries the generic name of Collectibles & Cards. The store in Amherst probably had a similar name, and it didn't last very long; sometime around my sophomore year, they shut it down to focus on the store in South Hadley. So I would take the bus once a week to the mall, no matter what the weather, and eventually I was able to drive there when I brought my car out to school with me. One of the clerks at the store was Robert Grover (whom everyone called Grover), a UMass grad student who was also at the time the deputy director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, where I spent one school year as an intern (it was located in Northampton, also on the bus line). The CBLDF moved to New York City, and Grover no longer works there; I'm not sure what he's up to these days.

The summers after my freshman and junior years, I was back in Vegas and back at Dreamwell, but the summer after sophomore year, I lived with my dad in California, working as an intern at Paramount, and thus went back to Pee Wee Comics. They didn't remember me, and I was too shy to try to remind them and engage in some cheap nostalgia, but it still felt like a homecoming. The first week I was back, I noticed that they had a help-wanted sign, and since I was only working two days a week at Paramount, I considered applying. In the end, I decided not to bother, but that would have probably been the culmination of my deep connection with comic-book stores.

When I moved back to Las Vegas after college, I never even considered going anywhere but Dreamwell. They started my pull list right back up for me. The place was decidedly old-school; they had just started to accept credit cards a few weeks before being forced to close, and the subscription service was based on sheets of paper covered in sticky notes for additions to people's lists. The store had never seen a computer. Even when I moved to a different part of town, and Dreamwell was a bit of a trek, I kept going there out of loyalty and because it was simply a great store.

Now I've just set up my new pull list at Maximum Comics, which is right near my current residence and comes recommended by the Karters at Dreamwell. It seems like a friendly, inviting place, and I hope that over time it'll have the same value to me that those other places have. Somehow it feels like a new chapter starting in my life.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Movies opening this week

Hear me chat about these movies with fellow Las Vegas Weekly film critic Matthew Scott Hunter in this week's Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast.

Changeling (Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, dir. Clint Eastwood)
I have mixed feelings about this movie. It's right in line with the sort of movies that Eastwood has been making lately: earnest, serious, socially responsible, kind of old-fashioned. Sometimes that works, but at other times I felt like this was the last part of Million Dollar Baby blown up into a feature. It's full of cut-and-dried, black-and-white morality; the heroes are sickeningly upstanding, and the bad guys are as awful and conniving as possible. Many have said that it seems like a movie not only set in the 1930s, but also that could have been made in the 1930s. And I like movies from the 1930s, but other things about this one are too modern for the throwback tone to completely work. Still, the plot is compelling, because the true story is just so full of weird twists, and some of the individual scenes are strong. Jolie basically just weeps through the entire movie, but even if she tries a little too hard it's not a bad performance. Sticking to the facts means that there's about four endings and 20 superfluous minutes, which left me feeling less than enthused. Overall, though, it's a worthwhile if flawed effort, but probably not one that's going to clean up at the Oscars. Opened limited Oct. 24; wide release this week

RocknRolla (Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton, Mark Strong, dir. Guy Ritchie)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Despite his being hailed as the British Tarantino, I never even thought that much of Guy Ritchie when his first couple of movies came out. They were mostly empty flash, although mildly amusing, and clearly represented the full sum of Ritchie's talent. So here he unsuccessfully tries going back to the well, and it's obvious just how little he had to say in the first place. Frankly, I'm more interested in the directorial debut of his soon-to-be-ex-wife Madonna; it'll probably be terrible also, but almost certainly in a more interesting way. Opened limited Oct. 8; wide release this week

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Craig Robinson, dir. Kevin Smith)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Like Guy Ritchie, Kevin Smith is attempting a bit of a return to form here, but he achieves much greater success. This movie isn't as raw as his earliest work, and thus not quite as exciting, but it does strike a decent balance between that indie directness and a more measured Hollywood approach. If nothing else, Smith has finally learned how to shoot unobtrusively; he may not have anything resembling visual style, but at least now his crude anti-style doesn't distract from the story and the dialogue. I'm cautiously optimistic that he may one day be able to make a great movie again. In the meantime, this is entertaining enough. Wide release