Thursday, March 31, 2011


CBS dramas stick so predictably to a certain template (sober procedurals with interchangeable weekly cases and stock character types) that Chaos is jarring merely because it deviates a bit from that formula. It's still a procedural about a law-enforcement team, but it comes with a strained comedic tone and cast of quirky characters that seem like they'd be more at home on USA or TNT. The problem is that the show tries to have things both ways, throwing in painful bits of wackiness alongside deadly serious rescue missions against armed terrorists. Neither part succeeds.

The pilot is also full of so many double- and triple-crosses that it just gets exhausting, even though it seems sort of ironed out by the end. Freddy Rodriguez plays a newbie CIA agent who's assigned to spy on a team of unconventional operatives -- except they figure it out right away and he eventually becomes a genuine member of their crazy little outfit. So you've got the agents who don't play by the rules but get the job done, and their humorless boss (Kurtwood Smith, the world's humorless boss) who wants everything done according to protocol. It's a boring dynamic that isn't made more entertaining by the awkward goofiness. The show is trying way too hard to seem fun, but then it has to pull back to give enough seriousness to the team's deadly mission. Creator Tom Spezialy has worked on a lot of shows that balance comedy and drama (Desperate Housewives, Chuck, Reaper, Dead Like Me), but here he gets it all wrong.

Premieres tomorrow night at 8 p.m. on CBS.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Raimifest: Intruder (1989)

In honor of Things That Don't Suck's Raimifest, I didn't just want to write up one of Sam Raimi's well-known films, or even one of his misunderstood lesser works. Plus, I wanted to see a movie that I hadn't seen before, so I combed through Raimi's IMDb page and came up with Intruder, a 1989 horror movie written and directed by longtime Raimi associate Scott Spiegel. Although Raimi has a number of onscreen cameo appearances to his credit, this is one of only a few that looked to be actual decent-size roles, and indeed Raimi has plenty of screen time as one of the grocery-store employees getting picked off one by one in this mediocre slasher film. He plays Randy the butcher, who's really no more or less important than most of the other characters, although he does survive nearly two-thirds of the movie. Raimi isn't much of an actor, but he fits in perfectly well with the loose cast, which also includes his brother Ted (as a spastic, oblivious produce stocker) and fellow filmmaker Burr Steers (who went on to direct Igby Goes Down and, uh, 17 Again).

More than onscreen, though, Raimi's presence in Intruder is felt in the shooting style, which is full of odd, creative camera angles and swooping point-of-view shots that recall Raimi's work on the Evil Dead movies. Spiegel goes a little overboard with the visuals, seemingly unable to shoot a scene without placing his camera inside a phone or behind a glass bottle or under the floor. What at first seems impressive eventually just becomes distracting, although the by-the-numbers plot and shaky performances probably warrant the diversion. Whereas Raimi uses his stylistic flourishes in service of atmosphere or suspense, Spiegel just seems like he's showing off.

Still, the movie has an amusingly casual feel to it, like a bunch of friends just hanging out in an empty grocery store and deciding to make a movie. Spiegel obviously just rounded up everyone he knew and put them in the movie whether they belonged in front of the camera or not, and Raimi is clearly game for whatever ridiculousness is thrown at him. Unlike Raimi, Spiegel never went on from low-budget B-horror to bigger-budget productions and acclaim; his later directing credits include straight-to-video sequels to From Dusk Till Dawn and Hostel (coming later this year). But for one moment, at least, he had both the potential and the endorsement from the man himself to become the next Sam Raimi.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Stash

As part of its ongoing effort to be a network you can watch while not masturbating, Playboy TV is introducing The Stash, its own version of The Soup (although not, as far as I can tell, an official franchise like The Dish, Sports Soup and Web Soup). It's exactly what you'd imagine Porn Soup would be: A snarky host (VH1 veteran Rachel Perry) stands in front of a green screen, introduces clips from porn videos and other sex-related videos, then makes jokes about them. It's about 50-60 percent funny, which is not a bad success rate, and its presence on Playboy means that there's no censoring of nudity or explicit sex acts.

I like that Playboy is willing to have a sense of humor about itself, and it's great that the producers hired Perry instead of a "funny" Playmate or porn star, but the show walks a sometimes shaky line between laughing about sexuality and laughing at it, particularly in a segment featuring fetish videos and another in which Perry goes to the Adult Entertainment Expo. Given that most of the other programming on the network is all about getting people off, it seems misguided to mock the ways that some people attain sexual pleasure, or to imply that certain healthy (if odd) desires are shameful. When Perry makes fun of the low production values, absurd plotting and dubious acting of mainstream porn, the tone is gentle and inclusive, but her dismissal of out-there sexual desires or unconventional products offered at AEE can come off as mean-spirited.

Maybe I'm just being overly sensitive, though, and merely by showcasing this material in a sort of no-big-deal way, in a format familiar from innocuous basic-cable shows, Playboy is doing its part to demystify sexuality and prove that it can be fun. That, plus jokes about Smurf cock, makes The Stash worth keeping an eye on.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Playboy TV.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The return of CrossGen

I was never really a big reader of CrossGen, the short-lived, high-profile comics company that flamed out in 2004 and whose assets were subsequently purchased by Disney. I picked up one or two of their early launches, but those didn't really grab me, and the only series I read for any length of time was the Victorian detective book Ruse, which I stuck with until writer Mark Waid left. I also have the entire run of the creator-owned series The Crossovers that I picked up at a 10-cent sale, although I haven't gotten around to reading it.

Thanks to Disney's recent purchase of Marvel Comics, the CrossGen characters are now back in the hands of a comic book company, and Marvel has relaunched two of the properties as four-issue miniseries: Sigil, written by Mike Carey and drawn by Leonard Kirk, is a full-on reimagining of the old sci-fi series, moving from galaxy-spanning space opera to more grounded teen fantasy. Ruse picks up nearly where it left off, with Waid returning to write the same characters and artist Mirco Pierfederici taking over the art. Predictably, I liked Ruse more, but I enjoyed the first issues of both series, and I hope they sell well enough to warrant more. It's great to see Marvel branching out beyond its insular superhero comics, and the CrossGen characters offer a chance to explore multiple genres.

Both series play to the writers' strengths, too: Carey does a great job of combining the fantastic with the everyday in The Unwritten (and did the same with his underrated Crossing Midnight), taking as much care with character relationships as he does with mythic world-building. Sigil starts out with a fairly standard set-up, as a misfit teenage girl is picked on at school only to find herself manifesting strange powers and transported off to an unfamiliar world (one lifted from another old CrossGen book, El Cazador). The first issue mostly just sets things in motion, with a lot of vague references to secrets in the main character's background. Teenager Samantha Rey is a bit generic right now, and the issue ends just as it feels like it's getting started, but it has promise, Kirk's art is appealing as always, and I trust Carey enough with this sort of material to keep reading.

Ruse, however, is totally entertaining from the get-go, and feels both familiar and new at the same time. It's been quite a while since I read the original series, but I easily fell right back into the groove of arrogant detective Simon Archard and his long-suffering assistant Emma Bishop. Their banter is sharp and funny, the mystery-solving is just complex enough to be enticing but not so convoluted that it's too hard to follow, and Waid ends the issue on a cliffhanger that immediately left me wanting to read the next issue. The tweaks that have been made to the concept all seem positive: Instead of some planet that resembles Victorian-era England, the book now takes place actually in Victorian-era England, and Emma's vaguely defined magical powers (along with, it seems, all supernatural elements) have been eliminated. That makes this a much more straightforward mystery series, and allows Waid to focus on the cases and the characters. Pierfederici ably steps in for Butch Guice, with a slick style that reminded me a little of Daniel Acuna. With his work for Boom! (Incorruptible, Irredeemable, The Unknown) and now Ruse, Waid is really on a roll lately, and I can't wait to see what comes next.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: The Neighbor No. 13

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

At some point during these Japanese horror mindfucks, you just have to give in and go with it, or you'll end up hopelessly frustrated. I wouldn't say that the 2005 psychological thriller The Neighbor No. 13 (based on a popular manga series, and also due for the inevitable American remake, to be directed by James Wong) exactly makes sense, but it mostly holds together thematically, and that's really the most important thing in a movie like this. The plot is fairly recognizable: Bullied mercilessly as a child, Juzo grows up to be an angry, unstable adult. He moves in to the same apartment building as his one-time tormentor (living in the unluckily numbered unit) and plots revenge - or at least his unhinged alter ego does, as somewhere during the film Juzo splits into two different people played by two different actors. Or maybe they're just manifestations of the two sides of his personality.

There's a lot of "maybe" in this movie, and by the time you get to the confusing, surreal ending, you may be entirely lost. I admit I didn't quite understand how things wrapped up, and I was sort of at a loss as to what was real and what was just happening in Juzo's head. But along the way there is some decent suspense and some disturbing set pieces, as Juzo violently barrels through a few other people on the way to his childhood bully. The torments of his youth, too, are excessively cruel and unpleasant, and director Yasuo Inoue does a good job of building sympathy for Juzo even though he's clearly psychotic. The bully gets to be sympathetic as well, even though he's grown up to be just as much of an asshole as he was as a kid. There's a good amount of moral ambiguity to go along with the murky plotting, and that plus the eye-catching visuals carries the movie through its various slow spots.

Monday, March 07, 2011

New from Image: Carbon Grey, The Intrepids

Carbon Grey #1 (W: Hoang Nguyen/Khari Evans/Paul Gardner/Mike Kennedy; A: Khari Evans/Kinsun Loh/Hoang Nguyen) There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen on this one -- four credited writers and three credited artists. But it seems from the postscript by Hoang Nguyen (who's credited as a writer and artist) that he's the main force behind this book, and enlisted some help to bring his vision to life. It's an aesthetically striking vision, and the art seamlessly blends the styles of Nguyen, Khari Evans and Kinsun Loh, with a sort of steampunk-meets-WWI look that caught my eye and made me want to pick it up in the first place. The story, however, is kind of a mess, and I had to read over several bits multiple times to make sense of them, and only after reading Nguyen's essay in the back did I feel like I had a handle on what the story was supposed to be about. It's full of pseudo-profound narration and poorly established characters, and while I like the art and the setting, I'm not interested enough to pick up a second issue.

The Intrepids #1 (W: Kurtis J. Wiebe; A: Scott Kowalchuk) This one is a lot more fun, with a suitably silly Silver Age-style premise (four orphans taken under the wing of a scientific genius and given super-enhancements) and simple, appealing art that recalls the style of Darwyn Cooke. It's got a mix of goofy gimmicks (hot girls with jetpacks, cybernetically enhanced animals) and down-to-earth character development, and while it could be a little more lively, it's still an enjoyable read with a nice light tone and the potential for some more substantive character development down the line. I'll be checking it out to see where things go.