Saturday, May 31, 2008

Final Crisis #1

I've long since given up on DC's daunting and new reader-unfriendly continuity, and their barrage of interconnected miniseries that all seem essential to understanding the tapestry of their universe. One leads into the next, and I just don't have the interest or the knowledge to bother following them. But I do like Grant Morrison, at least some of the time (We3 is one of the best comics I've ever read, and I largely enjoyed his X-Men run), and I certainly like J.G. Jones, so I had been considering picking up the latest climax in DC's endless crossover cycle, Final Crisis (the title also indicates some finale to this perpetual cycle of event stories, but I don't really believe it). A big, self-contained, universe-spanning story from Morrison and Jones might be fun, although the last Morrison DC work I picked up, his Batman arc with J.H. Williams III, I found mostly impenetrable. And after reading advance buzz emphasizing continuity and underwhelmed-to-downright-hostile reviews, I decided to pass.

But, thanks to DC's publicity department, I got a copy of the first issue anyway, so it seemed like the least I could do was give it a shot. And I'd like to report that I was totally wrong, that Morrison brings his trademark cracked brilliance to bear on an exciting, epic tale of heroes and villains and et cetera and so on. Too bad that's completely not true - this was twice as impenetrable as the Batman arc that I read, and I think I'd have a hard time even telling someone what the series was about. Not solely because it was confusing, but just because it has no story to it, no focus. Basically, something bad is happening...probably. What? I don't know. Are the multiple Earths collapsing into one? Is the single universe becoming fractured again? I don't think so, but those are the sort of nutshell premises of past Crises (both of which I read and remember only vaguely), and so I imagine something similar might be happening here. The Monitors show up, but they've changed somehow. Something happened with the New Gods and Apokolips, which I think was in a miniseries I read about (but didn't actually read). There's some caveman character who might be existing in the past or some post-apocalyptic future. The Alpha Lanterns...appear in a panel. At least half the characters are never identified by name. The only plot thread I could really make sense of and that seemed to have the potential to drive a story involved a bunch of villains teaming up to take down the heroes, and killing Martian Manhunter. That took up three pages. I kept reading the last-page cliffhanger over and over to try to figure out what was going on, but I was completely lost.

I could go on, but the point is, this is not a story. It's a series of disjointed vignettes that may or may not add up to anything and require knowledge of dozens of other stories not just to appreciate on a deeper level, but to even understand in the most rudimentary way. Now, of course I could scour message boards and Wikipedia and find out who these people are and maybe make a little more sense of this issue. But why should I have to do that? Shouldn't I at least be able to follow the action and figure out why I might want to come back for the next installment? I realize that DC is catering to longtime fans, and that's okay. But I'm a longtime Marvel fan, and a book from Marvel structured like this would only be marginally more comprehensible or interesting to me, I think. Jones, as always, does excellent work, giving the story a sense of scope and representing a wide range of characters in exciting and striking ways. But ultimately this is a series about a sweeping, important story, and if I can't even discern what that is, then why would I bother reading the rest of it? (I will say that there is the remote possibility that this will all come together in future issues, and if DC sends me the eventual trade I will give it a chance. But this is no way to hook readers on something being presented in a serial format.)

Friday, May 30, 2008

Movies opening this week

The Fall (Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru, Justine Waddell, dir. Tarsem)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I really wanted to like this movie, and I'm actually one of the few people who liked The Cell, but I just couldn't bring myself to invest in it as a story or even a sensory experience. It is, of course, very pretty, in a different way from The Cell, and that does count for something. I was disappointed that I had to watch it on a DVD rather than see it on a big screen, and the theater experience might have improved my opinion of it. Still, the movie's a letdown, especially since it'll probably be another eight years or more before Tarsem gets a chance to make another. Opened limited May 9; in Las Vegas this week

Sex and the City (Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, dir. Michael Patrick King)
First let me say that I have seen exactly one episode of the TV show (which I liked), so my opinion may not carry as much weight as a fan's. But other than the rush of nostalgia, there doesn't seem to be any reason for this movie to exist, as it artificially breaks up everything that appears to have been nicely wrapped up at the end of the series, only to spend two and a half hours pretty much just putting it back together again. There isn't a story here that calls for a movie to be made, nor is there anything said about the new phase of life that these women find themselves in now that they are no longer single or particularly young. The structure is slack and episodic, and drags on interminably through pointless subplots (Jennifer Hudson's character ought to have been excised entirely) and blatant delaying tactics. There are some admittedly funny moments, but they're not nearly frequent enough or funny enough to make it worth slogging through the labored plot developments. At half the length, this might have been an acceptable bit of fluffy entertainment, but in its bloated form the only thing it's good for is giving warm feelings of recognition to people who just aren't willing to let go of their favorite TV show. Wide release

The Strangers (Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, dir. Bryan Bertino)
I'm disappointed to see all the negative reviews for this movie, especially since a lot of them seem to come from the same preconceived notions that I myself had going in. I didn't expect much from a horror movie that's been delayed for months and is being sacrificed at the box office against a whole bunch of giant blockbusters. But as I watched it, I had to admit that I was completely wrong, and that this is a very effective and scary film. It still has its flaws - Tyler and Speedman aren't quite the acting powerhouses that could transform what is basically a two-character piece into something really moving and powerful, and while they always convey fear and dread well, their performances are a little one-note. Bertino builds tension and suspense very strongly, and for about half the movie, there's a sheer terror to the way the faceless villains slowly and implacably menace the emotionally raw protagonists. The tension reaches a peak and then doesn't actually go anywhere, and the ending provides a disappointing (if admirably grim) resolution. Even with such problems, this is a movie that grabs on and doesn't let go, and never uses needless gore or cheap scare tactics. If it's not a flawless horror movie, it's certainly a lot better than anyone would have expected it to be, and than most critics are giving it credit for. Wide release

Friday, May 23, 2008

Movies opening this week

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, dir. Steven Spielberg)
Unlike my colleague Matt Hunter, I'm not a lifelong Indiana Jones fan; before a few weeks ago, when I watched them again to refresh my memory, I hadn't seen the original movies in nearly 20 years. I liked those movies fine as a kid, and I like them fine now, but they never seemed like more than clever, harmless fun to me, and this new installment fits in well enough. There are plenty of flaws here to pick at - Matt notes some of them in his review, and the turn into sci-fi territory bothered me more than it did him - but while I was watching the movie I was generally entertained. This fits right in with the summer of adequacy we seem to be having when it comes to blockbusters - like Iron Man and Prince Caspian, this movie does what you expect it to do with competence and relative skill, but isn't something to be revisiting over and over again (although clearly plenty of fans disagree with that assessment of the earlier Indy films, so I could be wrong). Wide release

My Brother Is an Only Child (Elio Germano, Riccardo Scamarcio, Diane Fleri, dir. Daniele Luchetti)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I refer you to my comments on The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, which opened here a few weeks ago: "This is one of those innocuous, perfectly pleasant foreign movies that in a year I will entirely forget I even saw. Still, it has some good acting from the lead kids, and a nice look to it, and I can't really think of anything bad to say about it." My Brother doesn't have kids as its lead actors, but otherwise everything else applies. I suppose I shouldn't be blithely dismissing movies from very different foreign cultures like this, but the truth is they made the same exact lack of impression on me. Opened limited March 28; in Las Vegas this week

Then She Found Me (Helen Hunt, Bette Midler, Colin Firth, Matthew Broderick, dir. Helen Hunt)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I hate Helen Hunt with a probably irrational passion, so I was nicely surprised just that this movie wasn't completely horrible, since she's the star, director, co-writer and co-producer. Hunt is still a terrible actress and entirely unsympathetic, but Midler has way more fun here than one ought to in a dour, good-for-you movie like this, and at times she nearly saves the movie. Not enough to make it worth seeing, mind you. Opened limited April 25; in Las Vegas this week

Friday, May 16, 2008

Movies opening this week

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes, dir. Andrew Adamson)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I read this book years ago when I was a kid and brushed up last week by listening to the audiobook. It was amazing to me how tedious and boring the book seems now, and how C.S. Lewis really belabors the religious allegory far more than in the first book. So even though I didn't think this movie was spectacular, it does improve greatly on the book and give me hope that future Narnia adventures might be worth all the hype and expense. Wide release

The Life Before Her Eyes (Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood, Eva Amurri, dir. Vadim Perelman)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
There have been some inordinately harsh reviews for this movie, talking about it as the worst film of the year, and I think that's overreacting a bit. But it is a melodramatic, overwrought cheat, and I say that as someone who liked the overwrought melodrama of Perelman's last film, House of Sand and Fog. That movie at least was emotionally affecting; this one is just irritating. Opened limited April 18; in Las Vegas this week

Friday, May 09, 2008

Movies opening this week

Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski)
Despite the fact that the plot is pointlessly convoluted (and hinges on big corporations illegally inflating their stock prices - exciting!) and the alleged emotional moments are cheesy and false, I'd almost recommend seeing this movie just for its visual mastery. The Wachowskis didn't only shoot this primarily on green screens (like 300 and Sin City), but they also took complete advantage of the freedom of having almost no physical sets to construct scenes in an impressionistic, abstract way, with characters sometimes floating undefined in the physical space, scenes interposed with one another, cameras moving where they couldn't possibly go, and transitions using wipes that follow characters across the screen. It's really a monumental achievement in a visual sense, while at the same time being a complete sensory overload that gets repetitive and tiresome rather quickly (and runs on for over two hours). If the Wachowskis could better balance their visual inventiveness with an actually decent story and worthwhile characters (as in the original Matrix and their excellent first film, Bound), they could certainly make another film as revolutionary as what they've done before. Wide release

What Happens in Vegas (Cameron Diaz, Ashton Kutcher, Lake Bell, Rob Corddry, dir. Tom Vaughan)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
At least this isn't really being marketed as some definitive Vegas movie, the way 21 was. Really very little of it takes place in Vegas anyway, and otherwise it's just a generic rom-com not worth much attention. It could have been worse, sure, but it's in no way good, and more notable for the way it uses an ad slogan as a title than for anything about its actual content. Wide release

Young @ Heart (documentary, dir. Stephen Walker)
All of the positive reviews for this movie talk about how uplifting it is, but I just found it depressing. I mean, sure, it's great that these people have such a zest for life in their 70s, 80s and even 90s that they are out there singing rock songs (generally poorly, I might add) in a chorus and going on concert tours. But there is a constant sense - from the filmmaker, from the chorus director, and especially from the audience members shown - of indulgent condescension that just makes me despondent about the prospect of growing old. Okay, so maybe these people sing in a chorus, but that seems like all they do. So there it is: You sing some songs, people think it's cute, then you die (two of the chorus members die over the course of the film). It didn't make me feel good, although I admit that there are plenty of entertaining and affecting moments throughout the film. As a movie, it's way too long and seriously padded, and Walker inserts himself unnecessarily into the story, with so much superfluous narration that sometimes you wonder if someone accidentally turned on the DVD commentary. But I don't mean to condemn the film - it tells a perfectly nice story, flaws aside, and people less pessimistic than I am will probably find it very inspiring. Opened limited April 9; in Las Vegas this week

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Post-strike TV round-up, part two

30 Rock (NBC, Thursdays, 9:30 p.m.)
Tonight is already the finale for this show, which after a sort of shaky post-strike premiere is right up at the heights of the beginning of the current second season. I still think the show was a bit funnier in the first season when the jokes came a little faster, but the increased focus on longer storylines and character development has paid off well, and the jokes are as funny as ever, just not as frequent. It's at the point where there are lots of minor characters who can pop up now and then and score laughs, adding something to their personalities and backstories each time. And the way that Tina Fey has developed Liz Lemon into such a pathetic and yet intensely sympathetic character continues to be extremely impressive. I think that more than any other show I watch this is the one I wish would have had the chance to produce a full season this year. At least it's already been renewed for next year.

Brothers & Sisters (ABC, Sundays, 10 p.m.)
This show also signs off this week, and I'm a little ambivalent about the direction it's taken since coming back from the strike. The storyline about Rebecca discovering she's not actually related to the Walkers seems to me extremely ill-advised, as it negates the reason for the character to be on the show in the first place, and just reeks of soapy desperation. B&S has always had plenty of soap-opera elements, but it's generally been more serious and realistic up until this point. I love nighttime soaps, but turning this show into one does not fit with what's come before. It also seems like the creators are writing themselves into a corner, and I wonder if they are trying to get rid of the Rebecca character. The same goes for Ron Rifkin's Saul, who's never had much to do, and now has reached the culmination of his only storyline as he comes out of the closet. Exploring the issues facing a newly outed gay man in his 60s is something no show has done, but I get the feeling that this development is just an excuse to show the character the door, with all his talk of wanting to move on and live his life in peace (i.e., somewhere else). The other storylines have been fine if not spectacular, but I think the struggle with the soapier elements is really what will define the show as it goes forward, and I hope it manages to stick to at least a little bit of emotional realism.

Gossip Girl (The CW, Mondays, 8 p.m.)
And on the other hand here is a show that is extremely soapy and only gets better the soapier it gets. The arrival of the evil Georgina has been very entertaining, and this week's over-the-top revelation from Serena was entirely ridiculous yet completely intriguing. This show has become something of a cultural phenomenon in the way that Josh Schwartz's last teen drama, The O.C., was in its first year as well, and I hope it doesn't go downhill quickly like that show did. The giddy celebration of wealth and bitchiness is hugely entertaining, and the whole cast is strong, pulling off the lurid twists and catty dialogue with great success. I think I've mentioned before how great Leighton Meester is as queen bitch Blair, but Taylor Momsen has also been doing great work as her chief rival, handling the writers' decision to evolve her character into an entitled spoiled brat with uncommon grace. That storyline, which might have bugged me a bit, works thanks to Momsen. I'm still not sold on Michelle Trachtenberg as Georgina; she just doesn't seem menacing enough. But otherwise this show is stellar entertainment that clearly taps into a certain type of youth culture in a very resonant way. It's another new show I'm happy has already been picked up for next season.

Lost (ABC, Thursdays, 10 p.m.)
As has been noted everywhere, this show has been pretty much awesome this season, completely reinvigorated thanks to the announcement of an end date that the creators are able to work toward. And post-strike it's been just as good, with revelations coming in almost every episode, intriguing cliffhangers and even worthwhile character development (although last week did feature a return to the unfortunate focus on Jack whining). Sure, there are occasional dead spots, but the use of the flash-forwards has solved one of the main problems of the last two seasons, which was the redundant and unnecessary flashbacks, and the occasional flashbacks that do occur are much more informative. The mythology may not completely cohere when everything is revealed, but every new development that's come along recently is exciting, and they seem to be fitting the pieces together much better than I would have expected a year ago.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Movies opening this week

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, dir. Jon Favreau)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
The hype on this movie has been overwhelming, but that hasn't really bothered me (it helps that I have a cool free Iron Man action figure sitting on my desk right now), and the movie looks set to make a ton of money this weekend, which is also fine with me. Not that I loved it, but it's a well-crafted piece of blockbuster entertainment, exactly the sort of thing you hope for from summer movie season. Given the inevitable avalanche of crap that we are going to be subjected to in the coming months, this is at least a pleasant way to start. Wide release

The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (Michel Joelsas, Germano Haiut, Daniela Piepszyk, dir. Cao Hamburger)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This is one of those innocuous, perfectly pleasant foreign movies that in a year I will entirely forget I even saw. Still, it has some good acting from the lead kids, and a nice look to it, and I can't really think of anything bad to say about it. Opened limited Feb. 15; in Las Vegas this week