Friday, January 30, 2009

Movies opening this week

Hear me chat about these movies with the gamely masochistic Ken Miller of Las Vegas Weekly in this week's Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast (probably the last one for a few weeks, since there isn't much worth talking about - or even screening in Vegas - for a little while).

New in Town (Renée Zellweger, Harry Connick Jr., Siobhan Fallon Hogan, dir. Jonas Elmer)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I don't know if I'm just getting crankier, or if I've gotten stuck seeing more bad movies than usual, or if this month really is as shitty as it seems, but I can't remember a time when so many awful movies came out in quick succession to the almost complete absence of anything good. Even dumping-ground movies like this are often just mediocre, and sometimes even surprisingly good. But with this, Bride Wars and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, I've definitely seen some of the worst movies in recent memory, and quite possibly the worst movies I'll see all year (one can only hope). This has every awful rom-com cliché you can imagine, plus insults to both city folk and country folk, plus a main character who is alternately portrayed as a moron and a savvy businesswoman - but always as out of place in a man's world. I'm sure there are similar movies that are nearly as bad, but this one just struck all the wrong chords with me. It's sad enough that Paul Blart has been such a huge hit; I can only hope that people will have enough good sense to stay away from this movie this weekend. Wide release

The Uninvited (Emily Browning, Elizabeth Banks, Arielle Kebbel, David Strathairn, dir. Thomas and Charles Guard)
I think any amount of goodwill toward this movie has to come from diminished expectations; we expect the bottom of the barrel from our January horror movies, and this movie is slightly more competently assembled than its title doppelganger The Unborn. But it's also extremely dull and tedious, especially if you can figure out the rather obvious plot twist early on, and not particularly scary. The acting on the whole is slightly above average for this sort of thing (Banks has fun with her evil-stepmother part, even if the twist renders her performance a little problematic), and the plot mostly adds up even after it's completely turned on its head. But the characters remain uninteresting and one-dimensional, and unlike in the recent My Bloody Valentine remake, there isn't any fun camp along the way to the stupid reveal. If the plot mechanics don't grab you, there's not much else to go on. Wide release

Friday, January 23, 2009

Movies opening this week

No podcast this week, due to scheduling issues (and the fact that there's not really anything worth talking about).

Inkheart (Brendan Fraser, Eliza Hope Bennett, Paul Bettany, dir. Iain Softley)
There's nothing particularly bad about this movie, but there isn't anything to get excited about, either. It's mediocre through and through, a half-hearted fantasy adventure with a sort of interesting premise (people who can bring books literally to life by reading aloud) that's never fully explored. Fraser coasts through another kid-friendly square-jawed-hero role, and the supporting players do solid but unremarkable work (this is a pretty deep cast, though - Helen Mirren, Jim Broadbent, Andy Serkis). You could take kids to it and be mildly entertained, but otherwise it's entirely missable. Wide release

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (Michael Sheen, Rhona Mitra, Bill Nighy, dir. Patrick Tatopoulos)
As amusing as it is to see Michael "Frost" Sheen with grungy long hair and a bare chest wailing and gnashing his teeth and turning into a werewolf, this movie is still an incoherent waste of time. I saw and reviewed the first Underworld movie when it was released in 2003, but remember very little about it, and I never saw the second one. Obviously die-hard fans of the series will get more out of this movie than I did, but doing a little Wikipedia research only led me to believe that Rise is even more pointless, filling in a tiny bit of back story that could have been relegated to a handful of flashbacks in the next sequel. Like the Star Wars prequels, it all leads up to a predetermined conclusion, and has essentially no suspense or audience investment. It also looks ugly and cheap, like it was shot on about three sets, and of course has terrible dialogue and hammy overacting, plus one of the most ludicrous sex scenes I've ever seen. At least it's short. Wide release

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Wire, season four

As I'm already more than halfway through the disappointing fifth and final season of The Wire, the strength and complexity of the excellent fourth season (as well as many of its satisfying plot developments) are starting to fade, but even the subsequent missteps can't taint the quality of what is easily the show's best set of episodes. I started watching The Wire because of the critical mass of praise, both from professionals and from friends, and it's mostly lived up to expectations. After being disappointed with certain elements of the third season (in particular, the storyline about drug-dealing free zone Hamsterdam), I came into the fourth season a little skeptical, but it quickly won me over with one of the most detailed and heartbreaking portrayals of a corrupt institution that the show has ever produced.

City hall, the drug trade, the ports and even to some extent the police force have gotten off lightly compared to the skewering handed to the school system during this season, but as mind-numbing as it could be it was always crushingly real, the potential of a handful of bright kids petering out right before your eyes as teachers, administrators and politicians stood by, helpless to stop it. Yet in its own way this was the show's most optimistic season: Pryzbylewski, after ending his law-enforcement career in disgrace last year, redeemed himself as a teacher, starting out in over his head but soon reaching his students in a meaningful way. Bunny Colvin, the well-meaning architect of Hamsterdam, teamed up with an equally well-meaning but non-street-savvy academic to start a successful program for kids seemingly lost to a life of crime. It got shut down by the end of the season, but in the meantime it effected real change in the lives of a handful of kids.

Tommy Carcetti, a fearsome combination of political know-how and genuine empathy, got elected mayor, and by the end of the season I would have been happy to vote the guy president. McNulty, glimpsed only briefly in most episodes and not at all in some, found peace as a beat officer not concerned with the knotty politics of high-level police work. Daniels finally got some recognition for his stellar command skills with a number of swift promotions. Boxing trainer Cutty, out of place in season three, became an important beacon of hope for the crime-infested neighborhood. Sure, not everything ended well for everyone (especially drug addict Bubbles, and three of the four school-age characters introduced at the beginning of the season), but there was a sense that something was going right somewhere, that not everything was unrelentingly bleak. Yet even with such guarded optimism, nothing during the season felt as unrealistic to me as Hamsterdam.

I know from watching part of season five that many of these positive developments are quickly undone, but that doesn't change the way that this season was probably more satisfying as a complete story than any other. In painting a detailed portrait of a modern American city, creators David Simon and Ed Burns tend toward the pessimistic, but here they never forgot to show the small rays of hope. Even a character like Namond, with a drug-hustling father in jail and a mother who is perhaps the worst parent of all time (constantly berating him to quit school, start dealing drugs and become more violent), can escape the streets thanks to a combination of willpower, education, luck and a helping hand (from Bunny Colvin). His success story, of course, is contrasted with that of his friend Randy, another smart kid who, thanks to a combination of bad luck, mistakes and an indifferent system, ends up irrevocably lost to the streets (as we see even clearer in season five). It's that level of nuance and empathy, combined with cynical realism, that makes this season the show's clear zenith.

Previous Wire coverage:

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Movies opening this week

Hear me chat about these movies with comedian and filmmaker Jason Harris on this week's Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast.

Last Chance Harvey (Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, dir. Joel Hopkins)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It's a testament to how desperate the Hollywood Foreign Press is for "respectable" comedies to honor that this mediocre-at-best rom-com got two Golden Globe nominations. I suppose it's a safe bet nominating people like Hoffman and Thompson, but this is the very definition of forgettable. I'm already struggling to come up with something useful to say about it. One thing that does bug me is the way this is touted as a great showcase for older actors to play romantic roles, sort of ignoring the fact that Hoffman is still more than 20 years older than Thompson. A more refreshing and appropriate love interest for him might have been, say, Judi Dench or Helen Mirren, but I don't think producers are quite willing to take that risk yet. As it stands, Hoffman comes off more like a father figure than a love interest for Thompson, and it adds a layer of creepiness to the otherwise extremely dull story. Opened limited December 25; wide release this week

My Bloody Valentine (Jensen Ackles, Jaime King, Kerr Smith, dir. Patrick Lussier)
It's certainly the season of the shitty horror movie, as we learned last week with The Unborn, but this one at least is amusingly trashy and knows its limitations. There aren't any pretentious Holocaust references or appeals to Jewish mythology here; just a dude with a pickax and a gas mask hacking people to bits. Plus, it's in 3D (well, in most theaters; there's no point in seeing the non-3D version), and Lussier knows that, despite all the hype from people like James Cameron and Jeffrey Katzenberg, 3D is an inherently cheesy gimmick. So we get all sorts of things (pickax, gun, naked breasts, etc.) pointing out at the audience, very graphic three-dimensional gore, and things flying directly at the screen. It's all reasonably good fun if you like horror schlock, although of course also the plot is ridiculous, the acting (especially from Ackles) is terrible, and the twist ending is moronic. Still, if I didn't get such a headache from those damn 3D glasses, I would have had a pretty good time. Wide release

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Kevin James, Jayma Mays, Keir O'Donnell, dir. Steve Carr)
I expected last week's Bride Wars to be the nadir of this typically dead movie period, but Mall Cop was actually a much more painful experience, despite not being quite as dire a sign for the state of American society. Completely unfunny, with an annoying, unlikable lead character, terrible acting all around, a plot stolen ineptly from Die Hard, lame fat jokes, lame slapstick, an absurdly unrealistic love interest, pointlessly extreme sports-oriented villains, a horrible soundtrack, stilted dialogue ... I could go on. Suffice to say, already easily a top contender for worst movie of the year. Wide release

Revolutionary Road (Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, dir. Sam Mendes)
I come at these big Oscar-bait pictures with extreme skepticism, and this one never quite won me over. I think Winslet and DiCaprio both do impressive work, and I think that the examination of the deep underbelly of suburbia is still interesting if done right. But Mendes is a very careful and methodical director, and the movie comes off like a furniture catalog when it ought to be more emotionally affecting. Michael Shannon's overpraised performance is a complete cliche (the crazy guy who says what everyone is secretly thinking), and even Winslet and DiCaprio never seem to quite connect with each other. The novel is highly acclaimed and no doubt better at illuminating the inner lives of these characters, who seem just out of reach throughout the movie. Opened limited December 26; in Las Vegas this week

The Wrestler (Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This one, on the other hand, was much more successful at winning me over, although I still didn't exactly love it. Rourke gives a great performance, Aronofsky effectively overhauls his style, and Tomei brings depth to a stock stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold part. But the script does hit all the expected beats, and Wood's role especially is very paint-by-numbers. I'm a sucker for any movie that takes a profession or hobby that usually gets little respect and approaches it seriously, so I really like the movie's take on pro wrestling. And the stripped-down style and realistic performances do make the cliches go down easy. Reservations aside, this is a good movie, and an entirely worthwhile comeback for Rourke. Opened limited December 17; in Las Vegas this week

Sunday, January 11, 2009

South Park: Imaginationland

I gave up on South Park almost three years ago, and I haven't really given the show much thought since then. There have been occasional moments when a certain episode enters the mainstream conversation, and my curiosity is mildly piqued; I read online about the World of Warcraft episode, and actually bothered checking out clips of the Steven-Spielberg-and-George-Lucas-sodomize-Indiana-Jones bit. The Indy segments only confirmed all my worst criticisms of the show, that it just makes labored topical jokes over and over again, beating viewers over the head with creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone's opinions on various current events.

One other South Park moment that seemed to get a good deal of attention was the "Imaginationland" trilogy of episodes, which at one time was conceived by Parker and Stone as a potential new feature film. It's been released on DVD sort of masquerading as a new movie (although all three episodes together only amount to about 66 minutes), and when I got the DVD in the mail I figured it would be a good opportunity to give the show another shot. Then, of course, the DVD sat next to my TV for a good nine months, but I finally did get around to watching it, and my response is a pretty resounding shrug. It's certainly not as labored or heavy-handed as many of the show's other latter-day episodes, but it's also lacking in the creative spark that made the early years (or the first feature film) so exciting.

Partly the trilogy gets by on the amusing juxtaposition of beloved childhood characters getting violently dismembered, but even that wears off quickly. Parker and Stone have terrorists show up as catalysts for the main storyline (they attack the world of human imagination), but that angle is left largely unexplored. For such a plot-driven set of episodes, it's full of narrative holes. There is a bit of mild social commentary at the end, but mostly "Imaginationland" is just about jokes, and in that area it inspires only a few chuckles. I feel like the subplot about Cartman trying to get Kyle to suck his balls gets trotted out in approximately every third episode.

Also on the DVD were two bonus episodes with content related to "Imaginationland." The first, "Woodland Critter Christmas," is one I saw back when I was watching the show regularly, and I remember it being a weird, twisted detour, one interested primarily in sick humor with very little topical relevance. The other, "Manbearpig," is a perfect example of the show's worst tendencies; it repeats its attacks on Al Gore until they lose all effectiveness, then fills time with some warmed-over bits of vulgar humor. "Imaginationland" as a whole is a sign that there's still some cleverness and creativity left in this old show, but it's not enough to get me back on board every week.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Movies opening this week

Hear me discuss these movies with Las Vegas Weekly Managing Editor Ken Miller in this week's Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast.

Bride Wars (Kate Hudson, Anne Hathaway, Candice Bergen, dir. Gary Winick)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Make no mistake: This is a terrible movie. But I think I was hoping for something a little more go-for-broke terrible, rather than the simply mundane terrible that's the actual result. It's so easy to hate this movie that it's almost not worth the effort, although the combination of Kate Hudson's embarrassing career, the rampant condescending sexism and Hollywood's absurd obsession with ostentatious weddings is quite the toxic blend. Honestly, I had been sort of looking forward to this movie since seeing the trailer, because something this repellently awful is really quite fun to tear apart. But it was glossy and light enough not to be as despicable as something like Seven Pounds, which has higher pretensions to saying something important. I'm appalled by the movie's message, but it's not delivered with enough conviction to get me really riled. However, I'm happy to let MaryAnn Johanson do the talking. Wide release

Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, dir. Clint Eastwood)
I like Clint Eastwood, I really do, but I think he is getting a pass here, big time, thanks to the memories this movie evokes of his past tough-guy efforts. It's a clumsily written, predictable story (aside from the mildly interesting ending), with awful dialogue and some questionable acting from the supporting players. Eastwood's playing with his own image, but I don't think it comes off as clever or really has anything to say about lone-man-against-the-world movies. There is a small school of thought arguing that rather than an actual Clint Eastwood macho-tough-guy movie, it's a satire of same. I don't buy this argument, but it can be interesting to contemplate. (This AV Club podcast teases it out intelligently.) Really, this is a trite movie about a crotchety old guy whose heart warms thanks to his spunky teenage neighbors, full of silly old-timey racial epithets and some pretty broad stereotypes. If it weren't for Eastwood and the added poignancy of this possibly being his last performance, no one would be paying attention. Opened limited December 12; wide release this week

The Unborn (Odette Yustman, Meagan Good, Cam Gigandet, Gary Oldman, dir. David S. Goyer)
Here we have the perfect illustration of the January dumping ground: the shitty chick flick for women, and the shitty horror movie for guys. Marginally better than Bride Wars, this is nevertheless a waste of time, a perfectly disposable horror movie devoid of any scares that don't come from the ever-present jump moment, full of plot holes and indifferent performances, and with many supposedly creepy effects moments (the dog with the upside-down head) that just look silly. Goyer gets a lot of credit for writing or co-writing a handful of decent superhero movies (the first two Blades, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight), but he was also at least partly responsible for Jumper and Kickboxer 2. This is firmly in that latter camp, and doesn't bode well for Goyer's supposed next directorial outing, the Magneto spinoff movie. Wide release

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

TV premiering tonight: 13 - Fear Is Real

It's a shame that Sam Raimi has stooped so low as to executive-produce this crap; sure, he's put his name on plenty of schlock before, but at least low-budget horror movies and cheesy fantasy series have a certain entertainment value. Shitty reality shows are pretty much the lowest form of pop-culture product, and this is a particularly egregious example. It throws the superficial trappings of a horror movie over your standard elimination-challenges-and-backstabbing format, ripping off pretty much wholesale a number of ideas from the Saw movies without attribution. Like on Sci Fi's Estate of Panic, many of the "scary" challenges amount to something close to torture (in the first episode, contestants are placed in coffins and buried underground), although the contestants are all such whiny morons that it's tough to feel sorry for them.

The saddest thing is that they either believe they are in some sort of actual danger, or they're all acting that way to further the lame horror-movie conceit. One especially despicable contestant wails about "monsters" and is afraid of every little sound, even as a camera crew is following her every move. Another prays to Jesus during the buried-alive challenge; certainly He's intimately concerned with the fates of reality-show contestants. All of this fabricated peril simply serves to highlight how unreal reality shows generally are, making the title of this one especially ironic. Sam Raimi, do you really need money this badly? The CW, Wednesdays, 8 p.m.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Movies opening this week

The Reader (Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes, dir. Stephen Daldry)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Oscar-bait fatigue plus Nazi-movie fatigue equals nothing more to say about this movie. Although I will note that it's been a particularly good year for hot Kate Winslet sex scenes that movies later make you feel bad about enjoying (more Winslet nudity in this one than in Revolutionary Road, at least). Opened limited December 10; in Las Vegas this week