Sunday, January 31, 2010

Las Vegas Jailhouse: It's no Sin City Law

The onetime flood of Las Vegas-based reality shows has slowed in the last few years; the biggest recent reality show from Vegas is the decidedly low-key (and seriously boring) Pawn Stars, about three generations of a pawn shop-owning family. But dopey sensationalism returns with Las Vegas Jailhouse, a glib reality series from the producers of Cops, which resolutely follows that show's "criminals are dumbasses" approach. We're invited to laugh at clueless prostitutes, drug addicts and petty thieves, and while the crimes are admittedly minor, the show offers nothing but a cartoonish portrayal of crime and law enforcement, although it tries to engender a bit of empathy with some of the officers and more stable inmates.

This week I also finally got around to watching a screener of the last two episodes of the excellent Sundance Channel documentary series Sin City Law, which aired last February (I reviewed the 2007 first season for Las Vegas Weekly). Law is the complete opposite of Jailhouse, spending two hourlong episodes on each of its cases, delving deeply into the backgrounds and motivations of both criminals and victims, and spending equal time with lawyers from both sides of each case. Granted, the show takes on subjects far more serious than puppy theft and attempted prostitution; these particular episodes follow the heartbreaking case of a woman facing first-degree murder charges for allowing her boyfriend to beat her 3-year-old daughter to death. Law shows how even when justice appears to be served, it's often hard to claim that anybody has prevailed. Jailhouse just points and jeers.

Las Vegas Jailhouse premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Tru TV.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Dollhouse closes

I can only imagine what someone who came in to the series finale of Dollhouse cold would have thought. It really is amazing how a show that was built on standalone action-adventure stories evolved over the course of 26 episodes into this complex dystopian sci-fi parable complete with nonlinear storytelling and characters with multiple personalities inhabiting the same body. The knowledge of cancellation was clearly both a blessing and a curse for Joss Whedon and company in crafting this final season: There was a sense of urgency that started with the excellent "Epitaph One," the season one finale that was only released on DVD, and really kicked into gear with "Belonging," the second season's fourth episode, which dove into Sierra's back story and revealed the twisted motivations behind pretty much everything that went on at the Dollhouse.

On the other hand, racing toward the apocalyptic future indicated in "Epitaph One" clearly entailed cutting a few corners, and the later episodes of this season sometimes felt rushed. The penultimate episode, "The Hollow Men," which wrapped up the show's present-day storylines, was especially choppy, and felt at times like it had whole scenes missing. Last night's true finale, "Epitaph Two: Return," was much more satisfying, even if it too had to go at quite the breakneck speed to end up where it needed to be. And I have to say I sort of preferred the bleakness of "Epitaph One" to the dim rays of hope in "Epitaph Two," although the show still ended with plenty of uncertainty. The writers clearly packed a lot of ideas into this one episode, and more time spent in the post-"brainpocalypse" future would probably have been more rewarding. But for a show that seemed limited and hobbled at first, Dollhouse developed into a wonderfully weird bit of science fiction, with some of the darkest and most potent ideas that Whedon has yet explored. I'm glad we got to see as much of it as we did, and I'm glad Whedon got to tell his full story.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sundance shorts on YouTube

The Sundance Film Festival has done a lot this year to try to reach an audience beyond the streets of Park City. The program Sundance Film Festival U.S.A. puts Sundance movies in theaters in various American cities (not here in Las Vegas, unfortunately) for one night, this Thursday. I wrote a short piece for Las Vegas Weekly last week about Sundance Selects, a program that offers three Sundance features (all of which are kind of terrible, unfortunately) on demand via various cable systems for 30 days. And three other 2010 Sundance features (along with two from the 2009 festival) are part of a new initiative on YouTube to charge for rentals of certain films (check out Karina Longworth's extremely skeptical take on this plan).

Also on YouTube, and available for free, are 11 short films from the current festival (which runs through January 31), including narratives, documentaries and animation. All of the films are accessible via the Sundance YouTube channel, although you have to sift through various behind-the-scenes videos and filmmaker interviews to find them. While YouTube may be the wrong venue for $3.99 rentals of feature films, it's the perfect venue for shorts that clock in mostly under 10 minutes, since YouTube videos are generally just short films by another name anyway. There are people who create animated videos like the bizarre, creepy Please Say Something (left) and just post them online for exposure, and stripped of its "Sundance Official Selection" insignia, a piece like Please Say Something might get lost in the sea of weird online videos (and I think deservedly so; it's repetitive and completely baffling, and not in a good way).

The inexplicable documentary short Thompson (right) also looks like a typical YouTube video, but not a cool I-animated-this-in-my-basement one: It looks like someone's randomly edited home movies, featuring a couple of loser teenagers rambling inarticulately and messing around in their backyards. Maybe this is meant to be some sort of verite exploration of American teen alienation, but it's so indifferently shot and edited that it gives no sense of who its subjects are or why they do what they do (or even, entirely, what their relationship is to one another). Narrative films with this level of inarticulateness can be fascinating because they catch characters at their most intimate moments; Thompson mostly features disingenuous addresses to the camera.

But there are definite successes among these films as well. Two of my favorites are both documentaries profiling colorful senior citizens: Para Fuera is a slick, stylish portrait of Dr. Richard Bing, a 100-year-old doctor and composer, who's still lively and lucid at his advanced age. Mr. Okra is a more straightforward but still engaging look at a mobile fruit and vegetable salesman in post-Katrina New Orleans. Both manage to celebrate life while exploring hardship and setbacks.

I also liked the found-footage collage Voice on the Line (left), a sort of sci-fi/alternate-history take on the early days of the phone company, with suitably eerie narration and an effective manipulation of stock footage. And the quick, crudely animated Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No takes a very funny anecdote from a former major-league baseball player and illustrates it simply and entertainingly. Both of these prove that you can make an artistically satisfying, audience-pleasing film with simple techniques and limited resources. That's exactly the ethos that drives the best web videos.

The best of the selection is also simple, although it's the most conventional in terms of style and narrative structure: Can We Talk? (right) is a very funny back-and-forth featuring a couple having trouble deciding whether to break up. It has some unexpected turns, and even when it's vulgar it still exhibits a sweetness and vulnerability thanks to strong performances from the two actors. Writer-director Jim Owen will definitely be one to keep an eye on, if he can maintain this tone over the course of a feature and add in a little character development.

Gems like Can We Talk? are the reason it's worth seeking out shorts programs at film festivals, and even if you're reluctant to devote the time and money to renting Sundance features on cable or online, you should give the short films a chance before the festival ends this weekend, because it may very well be your only opportunity to see them.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Deep End

I'd like to order a show with this same cast and an entirely new premise. Might that be possible? It's painful to watch dependable character actors like Tina Majorino, Billy Zane and Clancy Brown slog through the soap-opera mush of something like The Deep End when you know they're capable of so much more depth, or at least gusto. And I spent the whole pilot wondering where I'd seen that vibrant blonde (Leah Pipes, who was hilariously bitchy as the only good thing about the Sorority Row remake) and that lively redhead (Rachelle Lefevre, best known for being fired from the Twilight franchise but also a frequent TV guest star I remember best from Swingtown). Some casting director has done a damn good job of picking out promising young talent and reliable veterans and stranding them all in this crappy show.

Okay, they're not all winners: Two of the male leads (among the five first-year legal associates who make up the core cast) are seriously bland, and the third only appears in about a minute of the pilot, so I couldn't really assess his performance. But the ensemble's overall strength really highlights how boring the writing is, full of lame platitudes about love, careers and Doing the Right Thing. Half of the first episode is about serious (contrived) ethical dilemmas and job pressures, and the other half is about every character having sex with every other character. The soapy intrigue isn't campy enough to be fun (although Zane does chew plenty of scenery, as is his strength), and the twists of the legal cases are all completely absurd and overwrought.

The Deep End is being positioned as the Grey's Anatomy of lawyer shows, and while it's not quite as insufferable as the popular medical soap, it's got the potential. Right now, though, it's just a waste of talent.

Premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on ABC.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Life Unexpected

Wow ... I think I just had a flashback to 1998.

The CW has always been more The WB than UPN, but even with WB-originated shows like Smallville, One Tree Hill and Supernatural still airing, it's been moving toward establishing its own identity in the last few years. Teen dramas on The CW are now more in the mode of Gossip Girl, probably the first signature show the network established on its own: They're snarky, glamorous and postmodern, cutting each bit of sincerity with sarcasm and self-awareness. And that's great: I love Gossip Girl and will defend it from any and all critics, even if it's gotten a little lost this season. But I have far more love for the dramas of The WB's formative years, which, as I detailed in this piece about the network's demise, were a key part of my own teen and college years, and were often painfully earnest and sentimental.

I would still count Felicity as one of my favorite shows of all time; it's one of the few I have gone back and watched again from the start. I had a conflicted relationship with Dawson's Creek, loving it early and then leaving it quickly, but I think it had one of the best finales of any TV show. I still worship Joss Whedon thanks largely to the work he did on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and, to a much lesser degree, Angel). And though I never watched Gilmore Girls in its original run, I've been slowly making my way through it on DVD, and I'm currently on season five (as things have started to go downhill). These shows all have a sense of excitement about love and life and romance and adolescence, even as bad things sometimes happen and lessons have to be learned. That's not something we really see on The CW anymore. At least until now.

Which brings me to Life Unexpected, starring, among others, Shiri Appleby of Roswell and Kerr Smith of Dawson's Creek, two recognizable WB alums. Appleby and Kristoffer Polaha play former high-school classmates in their early 30s who find that the 16-year-old daughter they never knew (and he never knew they even had) is suddenly part of their lives. And the writing is so heart-on-the-sleeve, so knowing, so gentle in its self-deprecation, it's like Dawson and Joey (or maybe Pacey and Joey) grew up and grew apart and then were thrust back together via outside circumstances. And Britt Robertson is perfect as their daughter, Lux (her name is Lux!), bringing the exact kind of open-hearted yet world-weary teen tone to the part that fits the show perfectly. To make another old WB analogy, the relationship between Lux and her mother is sort of like if Lorelai Gilmore had given Rory up for adoption and then reconnected with her 16 years later.

I don't mean to oversell the virtues of this show; it's at times awkward and cheesy, and I've only seen the pilot, so I don't know how things will develop. But the creator, Liz Tigelaar, has the right kind of experience: Her very first IMDb credit is for writing an episode of Dawson's Creek, and she worked on Brothers and Sisters and What About Brian, both painfully earnest relationship dramas with varying levels of quality (I've given up on Brothers and Sisters, which descended too far into melodrama, and What About Brian was a mess of retooling after its brilliant pilot). Keeping a show like this from tipping into painful sentiment isn't easy, and already I can see that the sexual tension between Appleby and Polaha's exes (who both have significant others, but end up having sex in the pilot) could get tiresome. But for now, this pushes all the right nostalgia buttons, and if you like your relationship dramas with equal amounts of sweetness and sex (but very little snark), it'll probably work for you too.

Premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on The CW.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Book of Eli

I didn't expect to have much to say about The Book of Eli, the new post-apocalyptic thriller starring Denzel Washington and directed by the Hughes brothers, before going to see it last night. It seemed like it would be your typical January filler genre movie, maybe better than some of the cut-rate horror movies and lowbrow comedies that often come out at this time of year, but mostly forgettable and unremarkable.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that this movie is a Bible-thumping (at times literally) bit of religious propaganda, in which Washington's Eli uses his mad decapitation skills to safeguard the world's only remaining King James Bible, which he believes will be the key to humanity's rebirth and salvation. Gary Oldman plays the movie's villain as a man who will do anything to get his hands on the Bible because he believes it will allow him to easily control and manipulate the remaining population, even though no one born since the apocalypse has ever heard of the Bible, Christianity or Jesus. It's a motivation that makes little sense, and it's not like Oldman, chewing up the tattered scenery, takes time to offer any glimpses into his character's inner life.

(Spoilers ahead.) And the movie's clear position is that Eli is right, that the Bible (and by extension Christianity) is the salvation of humanity. Eli derisively notes that all the other Bibles were deliberately destroyed after the apocalypse because "some people" believed they were responsible for the war itself (no word on if other religious texts were subject to the same treatment), but he obviously doesn't believe that. And safeguarding the Bible gives him license to kill and dismember as many people as he likes in an excessively brutal fashion, all in the name of his religious quest. It's clear that Eli isn't meant to seem misguided or delusional; he's been chosen by God, who spoke to him and directed him to where the Bible was, and God is the one who makes him essentially invincible and gives him badass fighting abilities.

Just in case you weren't sure about the message, the ludicrous twist ending reveals that Eli is in fact blind, so it wasn't years of training that allowed him to defeat all those thugs; it was the hand of God Himself guiding Eli to lop off people's limbs and heads. The Hughes brothers don't seem to have really thought through the religious implications of the story, as this interview reveals, and seem to be mostly interested in a badass action movie that appears profound on the surface. The end of the movie shows the newly created Bible placed on a shelf between the Torah and the Koran, and the filmmakers may think that this somehow adds a level of relativism to their story, that it's actually about the power of words or something. But by not having the courage of their convictions (whatever those may be), the Hughes brothers inadvertently press a very closed-minded, reactionary message, and do it in a sickeningly disingenuous way. If only this had been forgettable genre fare instead.

Opens in theaters today.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Human Targets

As I say in my review for Las Vegas Weekly, Fox's new TV-series version of Human Target is a big waste of time; even setting aside the abandonment of the core concept of the DC Comics character, it's still a generic action show with wooden dialogue, flat characters, lame special effects and recycled plotting. The first two episodes have nearly identical central set pieces, and they air three days apart. Whose stupid idea was that?

Before watching the new show, I was only vaguely familiar with the character created by Len Wein and Carmine Infantino in 1972. I had to check Wikipedia to verify that, yes, the TV show does do away with the character's one distinctive element (he disguises himself as other people so they can stay out of harm's way), and I don't really know if any of those early Human Target stories (always as back-ups in books like Action Comics and Detective Comics) were any good. But I did happen to have issues 10-17 of Vertigo's short-lived 2003-05 mature-readers revival of Human Target lying around, picked up probably years ago at one of the many awesome 10-cent sales at the late Dreamwell Comics. I have piles and piles of these comics to read "someday," so this seemed like as good a day as any to catch up on Christopher Chance.

Luckily, writer Peter Milligan was doing fairly self-contained stories for a Vertigo book (maybe one reason it didn't last long), and it was easy to jump right in without having read the earlier issues. Obviously, the main difference here is that Milligan's Chance isn't a generic bodyguard with flimsy cover identities, but an actual master of disguise who's completely convincing posing as the various clients who hire him. With the simple, kinetic linework of artists Cliff Chiang, Javier Pulido and Cameron Stewart (on various issues), plus the noir-ish tone of the stories and the relatively realistic subject matter (implausible physical transformations aside), Vertigo's Human Target reminded me a lot of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal, with seedy characters who make sometimes fatal mistakes even while trying to do good.

The best issue of the eight I read was the last one, which had Chance as more of a supporting character in the story of a mob wife turned informant he helped adopt a new identity. From its hard-boiled narration to its neat little ending, it was a finely crafted crime story in its own right that almost didn't need the Human Target angle at all. Less successful was the three-part story with Chance nearly losing his sense of self while posing as a cult leader. It seemed a little too ponderous, and the whole identity-crisis thing was played kind of clumsily and on the nose.

It looks like DC has put a trade of some of Milligan's earlier Human Target issues back in print to coincide with the new TV series, and even if these aren't classic comics, they're entertaining reads and worth a second look (and certainly far, far better than the crappy series). The original two trades look to be readily available online, and I imagine all 21 issues are probably in dollar bins everywhere.

Less easy to find is the very short-lived 1992 ABC series also based on the Human Target character, with Rick Springfield as Chance. It did use the disguise element, and was run by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, who previously oversaw the much-loved (by me as a kid, anyway) but also short-lived Flash live-action series on CBS. There aren't any DVDs available or planned for the Springfield series, but there are a few amusingly cheesy clips on YouTube.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: 13 Tzameti

On the 13th of each month, I'll be writing about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Gela Babluani's 2005 debut feature 13 Tzameti is a bare-bones thriller with one big twist in the middle, a clever shift in tone and plot that effectively builds on the suspense created in the movie's first half, but eventually ends up seeming sort of empty. Babluani is basically uninterested in character development; his protagonist Sebastien (played by the director's brother, George) barely ever speaks and is often expressionless, and has a family life that's sketched out in vagaries. While fixing a roof for an apparently wealthy client, Sebastien hears about a clearly shady opportunity that's about to net his employer loads of money. When his employer dies, Sebastien swipes some paperwork and decides to take the opportunity for himself, whatever it is.

The mystery of what exactly Sebastien is getting himself into fuels the suspense of the movie's first half or so, and Babluani does a good job of creating an air of mystery and seediness (the movie is shot in gritty black and white). But once Sebastien arrives at his destination and learns what he's in for, there's an initial shock and then a slow letdown. The shady underground organization he finds himself involved with is far-fetched and absurd, and the plot seems designed only to move Sebastien where he needs to be, without any consideration to how these events might actually work out. It's hard to care about the character's well-being when we have no sense of who he is or why he does what he does.

Early in the film it seems like Babluani might be trying to say something about the desperation of immigrants or their willingness to do anything to provide for their families (Babluani and Sebastien are both Georgian, and the movie takes place in France). But there's too little context for it, and eventually any intriguing ideas are dropped in favor of repetitive gimmickry. Babluani is still pretty good at crafting suspense, and the movie is paced well so that it ends right about where it starts to become irritating. But what at first seems like a serious mind-bender turns out to be mostly insubstantial.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Nomad: Girl Without a World

I thoroughly enjoyed Sean McKeever's 2005 Marvel superhero series Gravity, which was solid character-driven old-school storytelling that introduced a new hero into the Marvel universe. The series sold poorly, and there was never a follow-up; McKeever left for DC to write Teen Titans and generally seem artistically frustrated, and Gravity appeared in some random miniseries and I think may have been killed off. I moved on.

Now McKeever is back at Marvel and back doing what, to me, it seems like he does best: writing simple, grounded stories about teen heroes. The tortured history of the title character from Nomad: Girl Without a World ties in with the much-maligned Rob Liefeld version of Captain America from the '90s, plus the even more-maligned Onslaught Reborn miniseries, and Ed Brubaker's current run on Captain America, none of which I've read. But McKeever easily sweeps aside all the back story and simply establishes this girl who adds being from an alternate universe to her typical list of teenage woes. This story is, like Gravity, simple and straightforward, and as much about character development as it is about fighting a villain (who isn't all that interesting).

Nomad isn't as distinctive a character as Gravity was, probably because she's sort of a hybrid creation, but McKeever does a good job of giving her a personality of her own and an interesting supporting cast, and the art by David Baldeon is kinetic and fun and just cartoony enough to seem lighthearted while maintaining the down-to-earth tone of the non-action scenes. McKeever, as he did with Gravity, connects the character to the larger universe in a way that makes her seem like part of something bigger while also never letting his focus drift away from his core characters and plot points.

This is the kind of entertaining, simple (but not simplistic) superhero storytelling that Jay Faerber has done on books like Dynamo 5, and that Marvel and DC seem only marginally interested in these days. I doubt sales on this book were huge, and Nomad's adventures will continue not in her own series (which I'd be willing to buy), but in the back pages of Brubaker's Captain America, which I hear is good but am not interested in jumping onto at this late stage. I can just wait and hope that McKeever will get his hands on another teen hero with whom to work his magic.