Friday, September 26, 2008

Movies opening this week

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

Choke (Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald, dir. Clark Gregg)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Fight Club is probably one of my five favorite movies of all time, so I had hoped for something similarly nutso and exhilarating with this one, also based on a Chuck Palahniuk novel. It's definitely not in that league, but it's still weird and funny and surprisingly sweet. The romance between Rockwell and Macdonald feels genuine despite its odd trappings, and that makes up for some of the slower, less amusing parts. Limited release

Eagle Eye (Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson, dir. D.J. Caruso)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm still waiting for Michelle Monaghan to do something that capitalizes on the promise she showed in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I'm sure taking on all these supporting roles in bland Hollywood movies is helping her pay the bills, but I wish some more indie filmmakers would take chances on her (I haven't seen the recent festival film Trucker, in which she plays the lead, although reviews haven't been very good). In the meantime, she does serviceable but unremarkable work in this silly thriller, along with the rest of the cast. I suppose that's about all I could expect. Wide release

The Lucky Ones (Tim Robbins, Michael Pena, Rachel McAdams, dir. Neil Burger)
I'm sort of over waiting for someone to make a decent movie about the war in Iraq; it's not like we necessarily need one of these movies, and no one seems to have any idea how to make one work. So why don't we just let it alone for a little bit until someone actually has a good idea? This is yet another misguided take on the subject, following three soldiers home from Iraq as they road-trip across the country. The problem isn't so much the effort to grapple with the effects of war on soldiers returning home, but with the pile of absurd contrivances that drive the plot. It's so unbelievable and manipulative that anything genuine gets lost amid the groans at how Burger hammers home each of his points in the most ludicrous manner. Let's just move on to another topic, shall we? Limited release

Tell No One (Francois Cluzet, Marie-Josée Crozet, Francois Berléand, dir. Guillaume Canet)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I think there's a possibility this movie has been a little overpraised - it's a well-made thriller, but it's still subject to the occasional plot hole, and doesn't exactly reinvent the genre. In comparison to how shitty American thrillers (like, say, Eagle Eye) are, it's remarkable, but ultimately all that means is it's an effective genre film. Opened limited July 2; in Las Vegas this week

Towelhead (Summer Bishil, Peter Macdissi, Aaron Eckhart, dir. Alan Ball)
American Beauty is one of those movies that I suspect I might not like as much if I went back and watched it now, but at the time it came out I thought it was brilliant. Ball's directorial debut (he wrote American Beauty) is another look at the seedy underbelly of the suburbs, but it's completely superficial and crass, designed mostly to shock. Although there is fertile ground here, it would seem, in exploring the experience of a mixed-race girl (half white, half Lebanese) in the American suburbs, this movie is really just about the main character's mistreatment at the hands of awful males, and as such it's one-dimensional and crude, and doesn't say much of anything about the unique cultural backdrop. Bishil does a good job with a rather inscrutable character, and I was impressed with her ability to create a believable 13-year-old girl (she's actually 20). But she can't anchor a movie when everything surrounding her is completely empty. Opened limited Sept. 12; in Las Vegas this week

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

TV premiering tonight: The Mentalist

I have a generally low tolerance for procedurals, so my dismissal of this show may be a little more hasty than it would be otherwise; if you're a Law & Order/CSI/Without a Trace/etc. junkie then you may find more here to like than I did. That said, I did think this was a slight cut above the average procedural, thanks to Simon Baker as the title character, a former sham psychic who now uses his keen insights into human nature to aid in criminal investigations, but in a totally arrogant, pissy way. Some have called it a serious take on Psych, but it doesn't have to keep up the central ruse of that show; everyone knows that the guy was a fake, and his abilities are all the more impressive for how he was able to fool so many for so long (there's also a nice bit with one of the team members trying to convince him that there are real psychics out there).

Still, the mystery in the pilot is supreme dullsville, and the backstory angst for the lead character feels a little tacked on. There isn't enough humor for this to get by as a quirky character piece like Monk or Psych or even The Closer, and the tortured emotional life of the protagonist isn't dominant or dark enough for the show to work as some sort of examination of his descent into obsession. Instead it's just another mediocre procedural with a few interesting twists in the margins, and thus will fit in perfectly with the uniformity of CBS' offerings. CBS, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.

Monday, September 22, 2008

TV premiering tonight: Worst Week

I have watched a lot of terrible TV shows, so believe me when I say that this is easily one of the worst. Watching this pilot, I had that sort of "I can't believe this is actually a TV show" feeling, and I can't imagine it lasting very long in its current state (then again, I remember having that feeling about 'Til Death, and that monstrosity is still on the air). This "comedy" about a hapless moron trying to impress his fiancee's parents is painfully unfunny and mean-spirited, with the main character bumbling from one unbelievably stupid blunder to another. He practically ruins the lives of all the other characters in 22 minutes, so I have no idea how the show could possibly sustain for a whole season. It makes Meet the Parents seem like a paragon of subtlety.

I guess the British version was quite popular, so maybe it's a matter of something not translating well, or maybe it's just personal taste. I find the comedy of awkwardness very unpleasant to watch (which is why I can't stand things like Borat), but at least with something like The Office you can see the humanity and real character development behind the uncomfortable silences and misunderstandings. There is no humanity to this show; it's just a black hole of insulting cynicism. CBS, Mondays, 9:30 p.m.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Movies opening this week

Hear me talk about ... well, just one of these movies with Anthony Del Valle, theater critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and former film critic for the Las Vegas Mercury and Las Vegas CityLife, on this week's aborted Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast. Technical difficulties forced it to be cut short; things should be back on track next week.

Elegy (Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson, dir. Isabel Coixet)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This movie was all set to open a few weeks ago (I even posted about it, and was then chastised in the comments) but was pulled by the theater at the last minute. It's actually opening this week, but I have nothing more to say that isn't already in the review, or that previous post, or my podcast that week with Ken Miller. Opened limited Aug. 8; in Las Vegas this week (really)

Ghost Town (Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Téa Leoni, dir. David Koepp)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I've never watched either the British version of The Office or Extras, so I'm largely unfamiliar with Gervais, although I know that those projects are decidedly less mainstream than this broad, predictable comedy. Yet he was really the one element that saved this from being a total waste of time, and I think that if he wants to be a Hollywood star, he probably can be. I get the feeling that his talents will be better appreciated in material closer to the more difficult stuff he's done for TV, though. Wide release

Keith (Jesse McCartney, Elisabeth Harnois, dir. Todd Kessler)
The only reason I watched this movie was to be able to talk about it on the podcast, and that didn't even work out, so it was an especially pointless endeavor. This is a forgettable indie that's been on the shelf for a while, and is getting a release exclusively in Vegas (for now at least) by Lili Claire Communications, the new movie-distribution arm of the charitable Lili Claire Foundation. It's an odd arrangement - apparently the Foundation is planning to get into the movie-distribution biz in order to raise money for itself. I don't know how sound a strategy this is, but the bottom line here is that ticket sales for this movie help Lili Claire, a worthwhile organization that supports children with neurogenetic conditions. Too bad the movie is so terrible, then, a predictable, cloying, preachy melodrama about an annoying outsider who falls in love with a straitlaced high-schooler and teaches her to break out of her rigid routine and enjoy life, blah blah blah. McCartney, a minor pop singer, is terrible in the title role as an obnoxious teen who basically annoys a girl into liking him, although he only annoyed me enough to make me want to punch him. This one deserved to be consigned to a closet after playing a festival or two, and if anyone is tempted to see it to help out the deserving folks at Lili Claire, they'd do far better to just send the organization a check, and then rent something else. Limited release

Friday, September 19, 2008

Mad doctors, rogue superheroes and foul-mouthed soldiers: Warren Ellis at Avatar

I've long been a fan of Warren Ellis, but it's been a while since any of his work has really surprised or excited me the way it did when I first read his run on Stormwatch (which later developed into The Authority) or Transmetropolitan. In the years following those groundbreaking series, Ellis has done a ton of work (he's nothing if not prolific), but a lot of it has seemed like the sort of jaded, knee-jerk hipster cynicism that his critics most often accuse him of. Or, alternately, when he returned to company-owned superheroes after a self-imposed exile, it seemed like phoned-in contract fulfillment, random weird ideas grafted onto characters he doesn't care about. I've avoided most of Ellis' mainstream Marvel work since being unimpressed with his issues of Ultimate Fantastic Four and the first part of his Ultimate Galactus trilogy, although I've heard good things about his run on Thunderbolts (which is about to conclude), and I am picking up his Astonishing X-Men, which I'll probably address in another post.

The two recent Ellis works that have impressed me both appear to be on indefinite hiatus: Fell, his Image cop series with Ben Templesmith, releases one issue every five months or so, and Nextwave, his gonzo superhero send-up/homage with Stuart Immonen at Marvel, is apparently on hold until Immonen frees up some time in his Ultimate Spder-Man schedule to draw another arc. Both of these series showcased facets of Ellis' writing that hadn't been beaten to death already, whether it was the police-procedure detail of Fell or the absurdist, giddy humor of Nextwave, and both were supported by strong, distinctive art. In the meantime, Ellis has been pouring his energies on the creator-owned side into a number of works from Avatar, most of which feel like more of the same, even if they have their moments.

The big launch, theoretically, is Doktor Sleepless, an ongoing series which just reached its eighth issue, and one that was touted when it started as the spiritual successor to Transmetropolitan. Like Transmet, it's a sci-fi series set in a fictional, corrupt city, although it lacks the sick humor, rich tapestry of characters and detailed, immersive art of the Ellis/Darick Robertson classic. Even after eight issues, I can barely remember who each character is, and none of them comes off as a real, three-dimensional person, even in a heightened-reality sense. The title character is a cipher, not nearly as fascinating as Spider Jerusalem, although the latest issue's revelation that he is essentially out to destroy the world puts an interesting twist on things.

The art from Ivan Rodriguez is serviceable but not spectacular, and his character designs are all very similar, contributing to the confusion as to who's whom. There have been some powerful moments, especially the issue with the Nurse assassinating her former boss, but they're buried in a series that shifts tone with each issue and still doesn't seem to have a handle on what it's about. Still, I'll keep reading for those occasional flashes of Ellis genius, and because he's actually quite good at longform storytelling, and very rarely puts that skill on display anymore.

Launched around the same time as Doktor Sleepless, Black Summer was Ellis' twisted version of the superhero event miniseries, starting out with a lot of hype about its high-concept premise (superhero assassinates president for supposed "war crimes"), but then devolving from there into Ellis' standard take on superheroes as dysfunctional near-psychopaths who've been warped by their powers. The series was like an overcaffeinated version of The Authority, with the standard shadowy government bastards and plenty of carnage. The political and moral implications of the initial act got lost pretty quickly, and by the end I couldn't even tell you what the point was (or, again, tell most of the characters apart). Black Summer did feature excellent art from Juan Jose Ryp, whose work is almost Geof Darrow-like in its detail. He drew some nicely intricate entrails as the violence escalated.

Ellis and Ryp have another nihlistic superhero series, No Hero, which has released a short teaser issue and looks to be more of the same: cynical, amoral "heroes" twisted by power, oppressive government, copious gore. These stories have their moments, though, and Ryp does consistently top-notch work (he'll surely get snapped up by Marvel or DC soon), so I'll probably pick up the rest of it anyway.

To his credit, Ellis is still always experimenting with format, and the 48-page graphic novella Crecy is an interesting approach to storytelling. It's sort of Ellis' version of 300, recounting the true story of a battle between the English and the French in 1346. He uses an interesting narrative device, having an ordinary English soldier basically narrate in an anachronistic tone, explaining all of the customs and conventions of battle and of his society as if he's traveled forward in time, learned everything about the present, and then applied it to his own life. It's an oddly distancing effect, but it is informative, and it's certainly something different. I don't know that it entirely works, but I'm always interested in seeing Ellis branch out like this rather than fall back on his familiar tricks. Most of his Avatar work, disappointingly, seems to be rely on the latter.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Movies opening this week

Hear me chat about these movies with my former Xtreme Disorder compatriot Brian Black on this week's Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast.

Burn After Reading (Frances McDormand, George Clooney, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I love the Coens, and thus I think I had higher standards for this movie than I might have had for something by a different filmmaker. I'd say it's about midlevel for them, which is quite good for anyone else. Obviously it's much looser and less serious than No Country for Old Men, but some of the Coens' best films are the most comedic, and just because a movie is funny doesn't mean it can't be great. This movie isn't quite great, though - it's a little too unfocused and disjointed for that, and the actors are all mugging a bit too much (but having plenty of infectious fun). Still, I was entertained, and it's certainly possible that my appreciation will deepen on subsequent viewings, as it has for other Coen movies. Wide release

Righteous Kill (Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Carla Gugino, dir. Jon Avnet)
I'm a little surprised at how many people are still excited for this long-past-its-expiration-date teaming of De Niro and Pacino, which is about as anticlimactic as you could imagine such a thing to be if, say, you've completely ignored both of their careers for the last 10-15 years. Otherwise, really, this is exactly what you would expect from recent De Niro or Pacino, just combined in one movie. It's a tired, wan police thriller, with a lame twist at the end that people I've talked to have guessed just from my describing the set-up in one or two sentences. De Niro and Pacino sleepwalk through the whole thing, playing off the landmark team-up and just collecting their paychecks. They play badass characters totally at odds with their age and wear; watching De Niro bang Carla Gugino is particularly unappealing (and I love Carla Gugino). About the best thing you can say about this movie is that it's not as bad as the last Pacino/Avnet collaboration, 88 Minutes. Wide release

The Women (Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Eva Mendes, dir. Diane English)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I really like George Cukor's 1939 original, so I would have liked to say that this did it justice. But even though English totally screws it up, I don't know that a remake by a better director and with a better cast would have worked, either, without seriously altering the original's plot (or maybe setting it in the 1930s). So this movie is both doomed and incompetent, which is a deadly combination. I suppose it could have been worse; I was expecting something more horrible after all the bad buzz and delays. But it's definitely not good, and there's no reason not to just rent the original instead. Wide release

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

TV premiering tonight: Do Not Disturb

The outlook for the new fall season is generally dire, and the prospects for sitcoms even more so. This generic and forgettable workplace comedy isn't even the worst of the bunch (just wait until we get to CBS's horrendous Worst Week), but it isn't any good, either. There's Jerry O'Connell trying his best as the smarmy manager of an upscale Manhattan hotel, and Niecy Nash of Reno 911! doing the same as the hotel's head of human resources. The first episode creaks along with a tired plot about inappropriate workplace romance, and the jokes are completely unfunny. I will give the show credit for integrating a non-stereotypical gay male into the cast without any fanfare, and for making the fat-girl character a plus-size model without any body-image issues (she's also apparently quite the vixen, and appears to have an entirely normal boyfriend). But those characters are still stuck playing supporting roles in the stock plot, and the little blips of originality don't make up for the overall blandness. In six months, no one will even remember that this was on. Fox, Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

TV premiering tonight: Privileged

I have an affinity for soapy dramas about the decadent rich, as well as any form of entertainment aimed at teenage girls, and yet even I couldn't get into this rather grating, predictable, dumb show about an aspiring writer who ends up as the live-in tutor to two spoiled heiresses in Palm Beach, Florida. Really, I turned against it within the first few minutes, as the allegedly intelligent heroine (played with maximum mannered annoyingness by JoAnna Garcia) blows off her important magazine assignment to write some college-sophomore-level think piece, then expects her editor to fawn all over it. I realize she's supposed to be some naive idealist, but she just came off as an arrogant moron.

Michael Cassidy, who was nicely evil on the underrated Hidden Palms, plays the heroine's puppy-dog best friend, setting in motion some meant-to-be romantic storyline that got on my nerves before it even started. The two heiresses each get one note to play, and while I appreciated the relationship between the tutor and the younger heiress, which hinted at some real emotions being explored beyond desperation and bitchiness, it's not enough to sustain an entire series. The CW is banking hard on these rich-girl fantasies for its target audience, but this show and 90210 (which at least has the nostalgia factor going for it) just highlight how smart, layered and insightful Gossip Girl is. Privileged gets the gloss but none of the substance. The CW, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The balcony closes (and reopens)

Thanks to Olympics coverage, my local affiliate didn't show the final episode of At the Movies With Ebert & Roeper the week it first aired (August 16), but since there were two weeks of repeats before the new incarnation debuted this week, I got to see it anyway - and it's probably good I waited, since apparently Richard Roeper's short farewell at the end only aired in the repeat version. It was still an odd sign-off, with most of the episode giving no indication of this being the end of an era; Roeper and co-host Michael Phillips (the semi-permanent replacement for Roger Ebert) merely went through the typical motions of reviewing the week's new movies, although they seemed a little more distracted and glib than usual (that could have just been me projecting, though). Roeper put more effort into plugging his new book than into evaluating the merits of the various films, and I can't say I blame him. I think Roeper gets unfairly maligned for being a worthless critic; he may not be an intellectual titan, and I may often disagree with him, but I do think he knows his movies and takes care in what he says.

Phillips graciously thanked Roeper for the chance to be on the show these last few months, and Roeper then offered a carefully worded but seemingly heartfelt sign-off. Reports have come out that the producers at Disney were itching to take the show in a new direction, so Roeper's departure was probably not entirely voluntary, but at least he was classy about it. Word is that Roeper, Phillips and Ebert will all be involved in some new, as-yet-undetermined movie-review show (Ebert behind the scenes only, of course), and I will definitely seek that out when it shows up. At the very least, since Ebert co-owns (with Gene Siskel's widow) the trademark to the "thumbs up, thumbs down" concept, they'll get some attention from its return.

This weekend marked the debut of the revamped At the Movies with hosts Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, and although they were careful to acknowledge their debt to Ebert, Siskel and Roeper at the beginning of the show, it could not have been clearer that the producers would like to distance themselves from that legacy. I will say that this was not quite the disaster that many have been predicting - there were no celebrity interviews or red-carpet coverage, and the focus was still on reviewing movies. But everything from the hosts' nonexistent chemistry to the snazzy new set to the jumbled new Critics Roundup segment felt forced and desperate, like some out-of-touch executive's idea of what young people want to see in their movie-review shows.

Lyons and Mankiewicz awkwardly stood for the opening, then sat next to each other, then stood on opposite sides of a desk for the Roundup segment, forcing them to contort their bodies to face each other while talking. Mankiewicz looked down at a computer during this part of the show for no apparent reason, except maybe that some producer heard that movie criticism online was a big deal these days and wanted to somehow include that. Of course, this is a first episode and there's time to work out the kinks, but all the moving around and jazzing things up didn't convince me that these guys have anything insightful to say about movies.

Lyons (son of Jeffrey) is a notorious hack best known for his work on E!, and Mankiewicz seems a little more thoughtful but speaks in an affected radio-announcer voice that I found hard to take seriously. The Roundup actually had a couple of respectable critics (The Boston Globe's Wesley Morris and IFC's Matt Singer), but it was so crowded that it ended up less like a real conversation and more like a cable-news talking-heads show; each critic managed to get in a sentence or two about each movie before being cut off. I'm happy that they're including voices other than the two hosts (who seem fairly vapid), but this didn't offer up any additional insight. Plus, they spent an entire Roundup segment talking about Babylon A.D., but the closest thing to an indie movie showcased in this episode was Hamlet 2 (granted, Lyons did pick the documentary Beautiful Losers as one of his "Three to See").

I won't be watching Lyons and Mankiewicz every week, but I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt, if only because I want there to be a successful, serious movie-review show on TV. At this point, the new At the Movies seems too superficial to appeal to the old fanbase, and still too analytical to capture the Access Hollywood audience. I predict a demise within six months; one hopes that by then Ebert, Roeper and Phillips will have their more respectable replacement in place.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Movies opening this week

Baghead (Ross Partridge, Steve Zissis, Greta Gerwig, Elise Muller, dir. Mark and Jay Duplass)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I really liked the Duplasses' first movie, The Puffy Chair, so I had high hopes for this one, and maybe was a little too generous in my assessment. I do still think that they have a strong sense of the dynamics of relationships (both romantic and friendly), and some of that is on display here. But this movie feels simultaneously too busy and too loose. It's got a lot of plot, but not enough real character insight, and while that may get the brothers some work in mainstream Hollywood (if that's what they want), it only distracts them from what they're actually best at. Opened limited June 13; in Las Vegas this week

The Little Red Truck (documentary, dir Rob Whitehair)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
My guest on this week's podcast (which will be posted later today) really tore this movie apart, and I sympathize with his position even though I was a little kinder. This really is nothing more than a 100-minute advertisement for the Missoula Children's Theatre, and as such it's dull and earnest and self-aggrandizing. The organization is certainly admirable and worthwhile, but this movie should appeal only to educators and MCT employees and backers. Limited release

Monday, September 01, 2008

TV premiering tonight: Raising the Bar

I admit that I only made it through one of the three episodes of this show that TNT sent for review, partially because I've been swamped with work lately but mostly because it was just so dull and rote that it seemed like a complete waste of time to even bother with the others. Despite being co-created by Steven Bochco, this is about as safe and un-edgy a show as you can get, a tired legal procedural whose only distinguishing feature is that its main characters represent lawyers on both sides of the District Attorney/Public Defender divide. The cases are still broadly drawn and entirely generic, and it's never in doubt which side is in the right. The attractive young lawyers dutifully get it on with each other, but there's no soapy fun here. It reminded me of the short-lived Law & Order spinoff Conviction, which similarly tried to sex up crusading young lawyers and similarly failed. Solid TV performers like J. August Richards and Melissa Sagemiller are stuck with some seriously flawed material here, and the casting of one of my least favorite TV presences, Malcolm in the Middle's shrill, grating Jane Kaczmarek, provided the last straw. No better than whatever forgettable procedural crap CBS will be throwing on the air in a month or so, and very likely worse. TNT, Mondays, 10 p.m.