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.