Sunday, April 27, 2008

Suburban Glamour

Jamie McKelvie's four-issue Image mini-series is so beautiful and so well-designed that it's easy to forgive its sort of half-amusing Neil Gaiman pastiche of a story. I never read Phonogram, the Image series that brought McKelvie to people's attention, but I remember looking at preview pages online and marveling at the clean and simple yet utterly striking artwork, although the story seemed a little annoying and hipper-than-thou for me. But one look at the cover for this series, which McKelvie both wrote and drew (Phonogram was written by Kieron Gillen), I knew I had to check it out. The art (colored brightly and boldly by Guy Major and Matthew Wilson) indeed lived up to expectations. In contrast to a lot of indie-comics art, it's not sketchy or muddy or ethereal; rather, it's full of thick lines and well-defined spaces, and it captures a certain youth-culture aesthetic that works well with McKelvie's story of an angsty teen who finds out that she's very, very different from her peers.

The teen drama is nothing new; nor, really, is the story of the supposedly human girl suddenly finding out that she's the chosen one in an ancient battle between warring factions of magical creatures. McKelvie carries it all with low-key charm and humor, and wraps things up nicely by having the main character choose to remain an alterna-teen rather than become princess of some fairy kingdom. He promises more stories to come in the last issue's postscript, and now that the setup is out of the way, they could end up being a lot more original and intriguing than this outing. Either way, though, I'll definitely be there for the art. The Suburban Glamour TPB collection will be in stores May 7.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Movies opening this week

Baby Mama (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Greg Kinnear, Dax Shepard, dir. Michael McCullers)
I love Fey's work on 30 Rock and I liked Mean Girls, so I would have loved to see her write and star in a clever mainstream comedy that showcased her talents. But instead there's this, a hit-and-miss comedy written and directed by another SNL veteran. It has its funny moments, but overall is very tame and weak, and entirely forgettable. What really bugged me more than the mediocre jokes, though, was the way that the movie completely chickened out on its premise. (Spoilers follow.) McCullers had a chance to actually make a movie that addressed a relatively new phenomenon (surrogate motherhood) that's becoming more and more popular, and say something interesting about it. Instead the movie is a total cop-out; Poehler's character doesn't get impregnated with Fey's baby, but pretends that she did. Then she actually does getspregnant - by her boyfriend. And the movie ends with Fey getting pregnant the old-fashioned way despite the allegedly huge odds against her. So a movie potentially about an entirely cutting-edge and modern way of forming a family instead ends up reinforcing the most traditional values of all. Plus, it's not even very funny. What a wasted opportunity. Wide release

Deal (Bret Harrison, Burt Reynolds, Shannon Elizabeth, dir. Gil Cates Jr.)
This is one of those movies that is inexplicably released to theaters when there is no reason it shouldn't have gone straight to DVD. It currently has the dubious honor of a zero percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and that's entirely deserved. It's been dumped in only a handful of theaters, but that includes several locations in Vegas thanks to the gambling connection and the fact that much of it is set here (although it was filmed elsewhere, and the establishing shots are all obvious stock footage). Reynolds totally snoozes through his performance, Harrison is an unappealing lead, there is no drama or suspense to speak of, the poker play is deadly boring, and Elizabeth's subplot is a bizarre dead end that completely unjustifiably creates a rift between the main characters. It makes 21 look like total genius in comparison. Limited release

Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (John Cho, Kal Penn, Rob Corddry, Neil Patrick Harris, dir. Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Okay, so this movie is kind of dumb and certainly very vulgar, but I have an affection for stoner comedies like this (even though I don't, uh, share the characters' hobby), and I liked this almost as much as Harold and Kumar's first adventure. And even if its social commentary is sloppy and broad, it's still there. Any movie that can take on the war on terror while also making lots of pot jokes and showcasing a bunch of hot girls at a "bottomless party" is okay with me. Wide release

The Rape of Europa (documentary, dir. Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This well-meaning but entirely dull movie probably doesn't need a theatrical release, and will be much more at home on PBS or the History Channel. I do wonder who even pays $10 to see this on a big screen - and I am an advocate of seeing almost anything on the big screen if possible. There were a few times during this movie when the filmmakers touched the surface of something that seemed really interesting and then just moved on; there are at least five or six threads that could have been their own documentaries, any of which would probably have had more life and personality than this informative but cursory overview. Opened limited Sept. 14; in Las Vegas this week

Snow Angels (Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Michael Angarano, Olivia Thirlby, dir. David Gordon Green)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I haven't seen any of Green's other, highly acclaimed films, but I was looking forward to this one based on positive reviews and his general reputation as an excellent director of indie dramas. But the longer this film went on, the less I liked it. I actually have an affinity for bleak, depressing dramas, but this doesn't establish convincing characters or environments, and its desaturated seriousness only makes all the melodrama that much more laughable. For the first half or so I thought it was an unremarkable but passable small-scale drama, but (spoiler alert yet again!) once the four-year-old drowned and everyone spent all their time wailing about it, I just about gave up. And that was before the Jesus-inspired murder-suicide. I mean, really. Opened limited March 7; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, April 21, 2008

Post-strike TV round-up, part one

Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi, Fridays, 10 p.m.)
This is actually pre-strike TV, since Sci Fi held off the season premiere long enough to not have the strike interrupt the flow of episodes (of course, that meant a ridiculously long wait between seasons, but I guess they felt it was worth it). This is the show's final season, although it will be broken up into two parts, so there's a clear sense of an endgame being set in motion. After some meandering last season and a few terrible one-off episodes, as well as the disappointing two-hour special Razor, BSG seems to be back on track, and as with Lost, having a clear end point in sight and goals to reach has probably energized the writers. Certainly there are a lot of loose ends hanging that won't get tied up, since this show is not planned in advance nearly as tightly as, say, Lost, but a lot more of what has been promised for a long time is playing out here. There's the great mystery of who the final Cylon model is, the intriguing chaos of the Cylon civil war, Starbuck's insane Col. Kurtz-like quest for Earth, and real stakes established this week with the death of Cally, a character that many, many online fans hate with a passion that I've never quite understood. James Callis has been hilarious and fascinating as Baltar, whose messianic insanity has taken another new weird twist, and Katee Sackhoff is doing great work making Starbuck seem entirely off the deep end yet also probably entirely right. There's plenty of time still for ill-advised digressions, but I think the big-picture direction of the show is right on target.

My Name is Earl (NBC, Thursdays, 8 p.m.)
I've actually got the most recent episode of this sitting on my DVR, unwatched, and I don't know if I'll ever get to it. This show has really gone downhill since it began, and this season especially has been a massive disappointment. The writers have gotten so far away from the core concept of the show that it is almost unrecognizable at times. What was really a simple and direct idea has gotten all convoluted, and there are almost no standalone episodes anymore, in which Earl simply rights a wrong on his list. The first half of this season was spent with Earl in prison, and the final pre-strike episode had him out of prison but rejecting his list, which was okay for one installment, and ended with his getting hit by a car again, presumably to restore his dedication to karma. Fair enough. But instead of getting back on the right path, Earl has now been in a coma for four episodes, while the supporting cast works on his list and he shows up in unfunny fantasy sequences about his relationship with Alyssa Milano's Billie. The misguided plotting might be forgivable if the jokes were still funny, but they almost never are, and the writers are now relying on familiar catch phrases more than anything. I had planned to at least stick around until the end of the season, but it's become so tedious to watch that I'm not sure it's worth the effort.

The Riches (FX, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.)
More pre-strike TV, just airing now, although thanks to the strike there are only two more episodes left of the shortened season. It's not a good sign that FX didn't bother ordering the full season's worth of episodes once the strike was over, and I don't really expect this show to be back for a third season (I don't know how the ratings have been, but they were already shaky in season one). I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, either, since this has always been a show with an interesting premise that can't quite figure out what to do with it, and this season has been full of missteps and lost potential. There were two episodes spent just undoing last year's finale, and then a strained setup for why the Malloys wanted to get back to pretending to be a suburban family, way too much with annoying, over-the-top villain Dale, and lately an extremely pointless and nonsensical plot about Dahlia deciding to report for parole. The suspension of disbelief, always extremely high, has just about cracked, and even Minnie Driver's usually excellent performance can't make up for the dumb things they're having her character do. I still think there's a good show in here about con artists trying to pretend to be suburbanites without losing their souls, but it only very rarely shows itself anymore.

Samantha Who? (ABC, Mondays, 9:30 p.m.)
This is a genial sitcom that's usually not hilarious but has at least one or two genuinely funny moments in each episode, and is pleasant to watch thanks to the performances and likable characters. It remains nothing spectacular, but I enjoy it every week, and Christina Applegate does great comic work as well as providing some nice emotional moments. It's entirely possible that this show will go the way of My Name Is Earl and lose sight of the concept that made it funny in the first place, but for now it's a successful little gem.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Movies opening this week

88 Minutes (Al Pacino, Alicia Witt, Neal McDonough, Leelee Sobieski, dir. Jon Avnet)
It's common when people like Pacino star in crap like this to say that they need the money, but I wonder at the validity of that. I mean, with a career like his, Pacino has to have put away plenty of dough, right? So what's the real motivation for taking a starring role in this awful waste of a movie, and then not putting any effort whatsoever into the performance? Lord knows, but it's not just Pacino's fault that this is so terrible: a whole bunch of generally decent actors (Alicia Witt, Deborah Kara Unger, Amy Brenneman) give really bad performances here; the script is full of giant plot holes and useless dead ends and wooden dialogue; and Avnet uses hammy melodramatic quick zooms and flashbacks to scenes that occurred five minutes before to bludgeon the audience with obviousness. It's a complete mess, and Pacino, if he just wants to work, would be far better off giving some young, ambitious indie director a leg up rather than sleepwalking through this insulting piece of trash. Wide release

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand, dir. Nicholas Stoller)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I've been sort of ambivalent about the Judd Apatow juggernaut, and although I liked Knocked Up and Superbad, I thought they were both overrated. I've also been a bit uneasy about the moralizing that shows up in the films that Apatow himself writes and directs, and I'm starting to wonder if he might be a better shepherd of talent than a great talent himself. Because here he lets Segel and Stoller loose, and they really deliver, with a movie that's very funny and filled with surprisingly effective and nuanced characterization, without any moral condescension. Sure, the plot is predictable and adheres to standard rom-com formula, but there's a refreshing respect for all the characters, including Bell's Sarah Marshall, who comes off as a well-meaning person who makes a mistake or two, and really did try to save her relationship before dumping Segel's character. A cast full of people you can understand and believe in goes a long way toward enhancing the comedy and engendering a real investment in the results of the plot, however obvious they may be. Wide release

Zombie Strippers (Jenna Jameson, Robert Englund, Roxy Saint, dir. Jay Lee)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I admit I was excited at the prospect of seeing this movie, and it did afford me a few chuckles. But it's much more amusing as a concept than as a film, and Lee's penchant for "I may be making horror schlock but I'm really smart, really" moments is tiresome and awkward. Great, so you've heard of a few philosophers and hate George Bush - now how about spending less time reading Nietzsche and more time punching up the jokes in your lame satire? Limited release

Monday, April 14, 2008

Original Sin (Michael Cristofer, 2001)

See, this is the kind of movie that Angelina Jolie's evolution into savior of the Third World is denying us. A lurid, ridiculous melodrama that was savaged by critics and tanked at the box office, Original Sin is a nasty, sexy, campy good time, and I'm glad I added it to my Netflix queue after reading some revisionist take on it somewhere (which I can no longer locate to link to). This is sort of like the Wild Things of 19th-century Cuba, with Jolie as a sultry seductress who shows up as a mail-order bride for Antonio Banderas' rich coffee merchant. She is, of course, not who she says she is, and in short order she's stolen all his money and run off. But the sex was so hot that he just has to have her (or maybe kill her), so he heads off in pursuit, along with Thomas Jane in a very silly-looking fake mustache as a private investigator who is, of course, not what he seems.

Cristofer, who has yet to make another movie as a director, clearly knows what he's got in his star (he also directed Jolie in her breakout role in Gia), and lingers on every inch of her gorgeous body, which is on ample display throughout the movie. There are extreme close-ups of Jolie's famous lips recounting her sad tale as she sits in a jail cell awaiting execution. There are very hot and intense sex scenes between Jolie and Banderas in some very naughty positions, which really sell the crazy passion between the two characters (and offer Jolie lots of opportunity to flash her fabulous breasts). It's not hard to believe that this woman could drive men insane with lust (she even nearly seduces an actual monk), and the twists and turns are so overheated that they can't help but be entertaining in a romance-novel sort of way (the movie is based on a book by renowned pulp writer Cornell Woolrich).

Jane also gives the most exuberant performance I've ever seen from him, going so far as to give Banderas an open-mouth kiss (to see if he can taste Jolie on Banderas' lips, of course) in one of the movie's more over-the-top scenes. Jolie oozes sex, but also occasionally slips into a light British accent for no discernible reason; she still delivers the stylized dialogue with verve and passion. Cristofer goes all out with the sumptuous costumes and tight, tight corsets and opulent locations and showy camera moves and slo-mo. But it all comes down to the kinky sex (the unrated cut I watched comes with two extra minutes - of fucking!), and I think it's sad that Jolie isn't likely to give another performance in which her character is ritually cut and then gets off when her lover licks up the blood any time soon.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Vertigo round-up

With two of my favorite series ending, and nothing new really living up to expectations, it looks like I'll be cutting back to just Fables-related books from Vertigo for now, although I have no doubt that they'll come up with something worthwhile soon enough (both House of Mystery and Madame Xanadu on the horizon look promising).

Crossing Midnight (Mike Carey/Jim Fern & various)
This is one that took me a little while to get into, but by around the third issue I was hooked, and I was disappointed to learn that it'll be ending in a couple of months with issue 19. Carey managed to mix all sorts of weird elements of Japanese mythology into what is basically a horror series, which quickly went from a story about two average twins beset by supernatural forces to an epic struggle between various mythic factions. Sometimes the main characters end up getting a little lost, but Carey always manages to return to heartbreaking and chilling scenarios - like the man who loses one year of his life with every word he speaks, or one twin being assigned to kill the other in order to recover her memories, which will tell her that the person she killed is her brother. Fern's art was stronger early on when it was traditionally inked; Jose Villarubia's digital inks have given it a softer, less defined quality that looks a little too unfinished. But there were many moments of beauty, both in the art and the storytelling, in this series, and it's a shame for it to end so soon.

The Exterminators (Simon Oliver/Tony Moore & various)
Like Crossing Midnight, this book didn't grab me right away, and to be honest I'm still not quite sure what it's about even as it nears its end with issue 30. But something kept me coming back month after month to this off-kilter combo of dark comedy, gross-out horror and ramshackle mysticism, and after being baffled by it all this time I've come to think it's kind of great. The overarching mythology has been a little shaky, but many of the standalone stories were really creepy and/or affecting. This sort of entirely undefinable series is the kind of risk that Vertigo really ought to be taking, but at the same time is easily a failure without a clear hook (American Virgin and Testament, both tough to pin down, never worked for me). I'm sure Oliver had more stories planned, but 30 issues seems like a good run for a book like this, and the climax is gearing up to be totally weird and a lot of fun to read.

Fables (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham & various)
Vertigo's workhorse and default flagship title just keeps on chugging along with no end in sight, although the current storyline about the war between Fabletown and the Adversary certainly feels like it could have been the series' climax. Willingham is getting close to where most long-running Vertigo books end their runs, but he's indicated no desire to stop, and the quality is still very high. The just-concluded "The Good Prince" arc was a little long, but highlighted Willingham's ability to shift perspective and make almost any character in his large ensemble the focus of an engrossing story. I'm glad to see characters like Snow and Bigby, who were so central to early storylines, not entirely shuffled off to the side, and I have faith that Willingham will find new avenues and new characters to explore for many years to come. I can only hope that Buckingham, whose wonderfully detailed work gets better with time, sticks around as well.

Jack of Fables (Bill Willingham & Matthew Sturges/Tony Akins & various)
This Fables spin-off never quite feels like anything other than a supporting player to the main title, but it's very entertaining nonetheless, and Willingham and Sturges have managed to get far more mileage out of the Jack character than I would have thought possible. It helps that they've built up an appealing supporting cast, and aren't trying for the epic feel of the main book. I imagine this will run out of steam before its forebear does, and I still think that the best of these stories could have been condensed into Fables itself, but Jack remains breezy and enjoyable, if ultimately sort of forgettable.

Young Liars (David Lapham)
This was my recent hope for a new Vertigo series to get excited about, but after two issues I'm giving up. I've never read Lapham's acclaimed indie series Stray Bullets, but I did read his Vertigo graphic novel Silverfish, which was a brisk and efficient crime story, if a little rushed and awkward at times. This, however, is sort of a mess, with a weird high concept (a girl with a bullet in her skull that frees her from all inhibitions) and a cast of overly quirky characters. The first issue worked well enough establishing the characters, although Lapham engages in one of my least favorite practices in comics, trying to represent music accurately. The quoted song lyrics only read like bad poetry, and no pictures of musical notes can recall the sound that the artist is hoping to convey. The second issue is a complete tonal shift, with a gruesome, dark flashback, more pained lyrics and some references to modern musicians that come off as hopelessly forced (and misspelled!). The art is nice and the atmosphere is intriguing, but the characters annoy me and the storytelling is sloppy, and I'm not willing to spend any more time to see if it evens out.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Movies opening this week

Prom Night (Brittany Snow, Johnathon Schaech, Scott Porter, dir. Nelson McCormick)
I saw the original Prom Night last year, and while it wasn't any good, this isn't much of an improvement. About the only thing the two movies have in common is that they both involve a prom; otherwise the plots are completely different, and this version follows every obvious slasher-movie cliche you can possibly think of. It might very well be the most predictable movie I've ever seen. And that's the saddest thing here - no one is even making a token effort to be creative or clever or do anything more than the absolute minimum required. Every cheap horror device in existence shows up here, and with the PG-13 rating there isn't even any cool gore (these are some of the least bloody stabbings you could imagine). At least it ends quickly, exactly the way you knew it would from the moment it started. Wide release

Smart People (Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page, Thomas Haden Church, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ashton Holmes, dir. Noam Murro)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I will say one thing for this movie: It came the closest of anything I've seen to making Sarah Jessica Parker come off as attractive and likable. Not quite, but almost. Really, this isn't necessarily as bad as my review makes it out to be; it's just sloppy and pointless, and dressed up in "indie" clothes when it's about as offbeat and unconventional as something like The Family Stone. The actors are mostly appealing, and the tone is light enough not to be too irritating, but it's still mostly a waste of time. Wide release

Street Kings (Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Chris Evans, Hugh Laurie, dir. David Ayer)
Ayer's first movie as a director, Harsh Times, was an awful mess and made me actually question Christian Bale's acting ability, and this one isn't much better. Ayer isn't credited as a writer, but the script still has that same sense of desperate posturing, like someone trying really hard to prove he's connected to the streets while just coming off like a poseur. The tough-guy dialogue is ridiculous and overwrought, and Reeves gives his usual sleepy performance, so Whitaker hams it up like crazy, maybe to compensate. The plot is both convoluted and obvious and indistinguishable from a Steven Seagal movie. At least Seagal has some cool martial-arts moves; Reeves just shoots everybody and mopes. Wide release

Taxi to the Dark Side (documentary, dir. Alex Gibney)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I wish I could get more enthused about this movie, which a lot of people seem to think is brilliant, but telling me more things I already know about how much the government is fucking things up in the Middle East no longer interests me. Sorry, documentarians. Go find another insane video-game rivalry instead. Opened limited Jan. 18; in Las Vegas this week

Friday, April 04, 2008

Movies opening this week

Leatherheads (George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski, dir. George Clooney)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Despite being mildly amusing and overall fairly pleasant to watch, this movie was nevertheless disappointing given how much potential it had. Clooney can definitely pull off screwball comedy and old-fashioned suaveness as an actor, and Zellweger is one of those actresses who looks more at home in period pieces than she does in modern dress. The previews looked funny, but there's not nearly as much zip and life to this movie as there should be. Maybe if one of the other directors who'd been attached to the script in the 16 years (!) since it was written had been behind the camera, it would have turned out to be more than mediocre. Wide release

The Ruins (Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore, Laura Ramsey, dir. Carter Smith)
So here's another horror movie withheld from critics until the night before it opens, with pretty young stars getting killed in an exotic location, and naturally I assumed it would be lame. But despite the mostly negative reviews that have come in, I found this to be a pretty damn effective horror film. Granted, the characters are fairly one-dimensional and underdeveloped, but the acting is decent and makes up for some of those shortcomings. And it's not about tourists getting tortured by unsavory locals like in Hostel or Turistas - instead they're trapped in the titular ruins with a sort of evil plant, which sounds hokey but actually turns out to be rather scary. The movie is intense and pretty relentless once it starts up, and fairly bleak in its outlook. There are some gory gross-out moments, but always in service of the story, and they're not used gratuitously. And the plot is not entirely predictable, although the ending cops out from what apparently happened in the book in favor of a more typical horror-movie finale. Still, it's a damn sight better than yet another movie about a stringy-haired ghost girl, and it was a pleasantly unpleasant surprise. Wide release

The Witnesses (Emmanuelle Béart, Sami Bouajila, Johan Libéreau, Michel Blanc, dir. André Téchiné)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I haven't actually seen any of Téchiné's other films, but apparently this kind of lyrical human drama is his specialty. This struck me as a minor work, but it had its moments, and Béart gives a very good performance. Opened limited Jan. 18; in Las Vegas this week