Friday, December 30, 2005

Movies opening this week

Brokeback Mountain (Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, dir. Ang Lee)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I think the force of hype and expectations led to my mild disappointment in this movie. I still think it's a very well-made and often powerful film, but it had a certain distance to it that didn't completely grab me. There's more to this film than its actual content, of course, and for its social value I have nothing but praise. It's not pushy or preachy, but it doesn't flinch at telling a story that addresses real and important issues, and it does so with three-dimensional characters rather than archetypes, and puts their emotional arc ahead of any social commentary at all times. That's something I definitely admire. Opened limited Dec. 9; in Las Vegas this week

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Weekend viewing

Mad Dog and Glory (John McNaughton, 1993)
I've been saying for a long time that Bill Murray was giving really good performances before he started getting noticed as a "serious" actor. Movies like Groundhog Day and What About Bob? and the sorely underrated Quick Change (which Murray also co-directed) have really great acting in them even if they're lighter than movies like Rushmore or Lost in Translation. This is a movie often cited for one of Murray's overlooked performances, and as an underrated gem of a comedy, so it seemed like a good bet. Plus I can't get enough of McNaughton's Wild Things. This is a nice, unassuming little film, but it doesn't feature especially outstanding work from Murray (he's perfectly good, but not great, in a supporting role), and it's sort of predictable and pleasant but not fabulous. The most notable aspect is the casting of Murray as the scary gangster and Robert De Niro as the shlub. There's some amusingly dry humor and a couple of heartbreakingly awkward sex scenes between De Niro and Uma Thurman, but it's not one to go rushing out to watch because it's an undiscovered masterpiece.

The Memory of a Killer (Erik van Looy, 2003)
I'm trying to get through some of the screeners that have piled up in the last few months, and this is one I've really been meaning to see, as it got many positive reviews and even ended up on some top ten lists. It's interesting how fairly conventional thrillers can garner such high praise when rendered in a foreign language. Not that this is a bad movie - it's suspenseful and exciting, even if it goes on a little long - but if it were an American movie starring Harrison Ford (for example), I doubt critics would have been as kind. Van Looy does a good job at creating characters and developing a mystery, but he uses the same kind of overcooked visuals that flashy American directors often rely on, resorts to the old "little girl in peril" action movie motif and, in the end, tells a pretty conventional revenge story. He tells it well, and I enjoyed the film, but I think some people are just a little too impressed with characters who speak Dutch and French.

The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
After seeing Malick's new film, The New World, a couple of weeks ago (it won't open in Vegas until January 13 but it's my pick for the best film of 2005), I felt I really ought to see this film, which at the time it came out seemed like something I would never want to see unless strongly pushed (a three-hour World War II movie? Not for me). But this is a clear precursor to The New World, and has many of the same elements that made that film so effective for me. It's only about WWII so far as The New World is about early American colonies, which is to say not a whole lot. It's more about how beautiful and mysterious nature is, and how humans with their war and their colonization tend to fuck it up, but also how sometimes the beauty of human existence and the beauty of the natural world can inform each other in unexpected and poignant ways. Or, if you're less charitable, you could sum up Malick's style as one IMDb poster did, as "Oh look! A leaf!" Obviously I think there's more to it than that, and this movie has plenty of moments of transcendent beauty, both in the jungles of Guadalcanal and in the interactions of the dozens of characters in the film. The sheer number of those characters made it hard for me to really connect with the film in the way I did with The New World, and at times it seemed like Malick himself got a little lost among all the various soldiers. But this is a movie worth seeing for the cinematography alone, and it's really rewarding and rich if you stick with it through the initial confusion and allow it to envelop you like a breeze.

New comics 12/21

Generation M #2 (Paul Jenkins/Ramon Bachs, Marvel)
I still have some reservations about this book, but I very much like the way it's taken the big events of House of M and the editorially-mandated changes in the Marvel universe and made small, personal stories out of them. The scenes with Stacy X in this issue are emblematic of the kind of affecting, interesting stories that the whole crossover could engender. Unfortunately, they're still framed by the adventures of the somewhat annoying Sally Floyd, and I'm not much looking forward to the day she becomes the star of The Pulse. Bachs's art is also a little lumpy and indistinct at times, although it captures the gritty feel to the story well enough. I'm also interested enough in the murder mystery (Jenkins is an excellent mystery writer; just read Revelations) to keep reading.

Infinite Crisis #3 (Geoff Johns/Phil Jimenez, DC)
I would never in a million years buy this, but DC has been sending out each issue to their press list like they did with Identity Crisis (actually, they've only sent me issues two and three, oddly enough), so I figured I'd give it a shot. As expected, I only understood about 60 percent of what happened in this issue, but the central story about the imprisoned refugees of Earth-2 breaking out and trying to take over is interesting enough. I'm just not sure what all of the other stuff that was bulit up in the lead-up mini-series has to do with it, or who most of the characters are. I'm not a longtime DC universe fan, so I'm not the target audience, but I still can't shake the feeling that the whole story is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. I will say this, though: There is like ten times as much happening in this issue as there was in four issues of House of M.

Runaways #11 (Brian K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona, Marvel)
Damn, this was a good issue. This has pretty much everything this book does well: crisp, clever dialogue, deft yet subtle use of continuity, soap opera-like intrigue, unexpected character development and a whopper of a cliffhanger. I am so in awe of Brian Vaughan it's ridiculous. I think I'd been a little complacent about this book over the last few issues, but firing on all cylinders like this reminds me of just how great it is.

Testament #1 (Douglas Rushkoff/Liam Sharp, DC/Vertigo)
Even after reading and pondering this issue, I still don't quite know what to make of it. The main plot is your standard "the government is out to get us" sci-fi story set in the near future, and it's okay for such a thing. But I don't understand what the biblical parallels are supposed to add, nor do I see how the connections are going to feed into a larger story. Right now I'm alternately confused and uninterested. Still, Rushkoff is obviously going to tackle some big issues, and I've liked Sharp's work in the past (although he's such a stylistic chameleon that I don't know that I would have even recognized it if his name wasn't in the credits). This was a free review copy from DC, so I can at least buy one more issue to see if things play out in a more coherent and engaging fashion.

X-Factor #1 (Peter David/Ryan Sook, Marvel)
This was out last week, but I didn't get it until now. I'm really happy to see Peter David back with an ongoing Marvel book starring some of the characters from the excellent Madrox mini-series. Like Paul Jenkins, he's made good use of the aftermath of House of M, and I'm really curious to see if he can make Layla Miller a useful and not completely pointless character. It's interesting to me that Bendis handed off this supposedly awesome new creation to another writer. Sook's art is appropriately moody, and I love Wade von Grawbadger's thick inks. Plus there's a nice cliffhanger ending. I'm adding this to my pull list posthaste.

Saturday, December 24, 2005


Back at the end of August, a friend of mine was visiting from California and brought his Scrubs season one DVD with him. He'd already watched the entire series in the span of a few weeks (when he decides he likes a show, he doesn't mess around), and he brought it with him to lend to another friend of mine who was a Scrubs fan but had never seen the first season. My other friend watched the DVD within a couple of weeks and gave it back to me, and it was just sitting on my TV, awaiting the next visit from its owner.

So, having heard from these two friends, as well as critics and others, how good the show is, I figured I might as well watch some of it while waiting to return the DVDs. After watching the first couple of episodes, I was fairly disappointed. It's a single-camera comedy that mixes in dramatic elements, so it's not meant to be as joke-oriented and laugh out loud funny as something like Seinfeld, but I found the humor sort of feeble a lot of the time. The peripheral characters, like the cruel janitor, the faux-nice chief of medicine Dr. Kelso and the super-sarcastic Dr. Cox, were more annoying than endearing to me, although I found the four main characters to be likeable and fairly well-rounded. If I had caught these initial episodes when they first aired, I doubt I would have made the effort to tune in every week to watch the show.

But since the DVDs were just sitting there, and I found the show pleasant enough to watch, I kept going. It took less time to watch the 22-minute Scrubs episodes than the much longer episodes of the show I'm watching from Netflix right now (The Prisoner), and it was more satisfying to watch a program from beginning to end while sitting down to eat dinner than just flipping around the channels for 20 minutes. Pretty soon I had made it through the entire 24-episode season. And, really, even though it was perfectly nice to watch, my opinion of the show hasn't changed. Those secondary characters are still annoying. The jokes still aren't that funny. I do like the central characters, and their development over the course of the season was well handled and held my interest. After hearing for so long about how this was one of the best or even the best comedy on TV, I guess I was expecting something a little more innovative and affecting. Instead, it was more just a way to pass the time. I'm not running out to buy season two or even add it to my Netflix queue, but if my friend happened to leave it behind, I'd probably watch it.

Movies opening this week

Fun with Dick and Jane (Jim Carrey, Téa Leoni, Alec Baldwin, dir. Dean Parisot)
Not fun at all. Actually, quite tedious and irritating. It's been so long since I've seen Jim Carrey do his over-the-top physical comedy that I forgot how annoying he could be, and in this movie he doesn't even have the saving grace of occasionally stumbling across something funny, or working his schtick into a well-crafted comedic story. This is a sloppily written, poorly constructed mess, and the worst thing about it is the way that it structures itself around a real and important political issue (corporate corruption scandals) not as a way to make genuine social commentary, but simply as a lazy way to get people's attention. By shamelessly jumping on the anti-corporate bandwagon and putting its message across in such a clumsy, crass way, the film actually hurts the very cause it's allegedly trying to help. Wide release

Memoirs of a Geisha (Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, dir. Rob Marshall)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
There's not much to say about this beyond the review, which documents just how vapid and misguided this movie is despite how pretty it looks on the surface. When I sent in the review, my editor asked if I didn't think it was possible for white male Americans to make insightful movies about Japanese female cultural institutions, and of course I do. There's no reason that every movie about a particular ethnic group has to be created only by people from that ethnic group. But this is facile and condescending, and does a disservice both to the culture it represents and to people who genuinely want to understand cultures other than their own. Opened limited Dec. 9; wide release this week

Munich (Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, dir. Steven Spielberg)
I'm still sort of conflicted about what to think about this movie. On one hand, it left me fairly cold when I first saw it. On the other hand, the more I think about it and read about it, the more I respect it. The most interesting thing is how dark and fairly un-Spielberg it is. His recent films have gone out of their way to present upbeat, optimistic endings and messages even when the plots are overwhelmingly bleak (especially Minority Report and War of the Worlds), but Munich ends on a pessimistic note in keeping with its overall grim outlook. The message that violence begets more violence is an important and timely one, but the film gets its point across early on and becomes a little tiresome over its two and a half hours. Many reviews have focused on the idea that this is an effectively entertaining thriller in addition to its social message, but I think the repetitive structure dulls some of the thriller-esque excitement, and the insistence on emphasizing the soul-deadening consequences of violence takes away the enjoyment of the suspense (not that that's a bad thing). There's also a really poorly executed sequence near the end that intercuts a sex scene with the Olympic violence to illustrate a parity between the hero's tortured lovemaking with his wife and the execution of the Israeli athletes that just isn't there. Flaws aside, this film does raise important questions in a mostly effective way, and for that it deserves to be commended. Opens limited this week; wide release Jan. 6

The Producers (Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman, dir. Susan Stroman)
Thankfully, this came out just in time to secure a spot on my worst movies of 2005 list. I'm always on the defensive when talking about musicals, because I'm not generally responsive to the genre, and any criticisms I have are often taken with a grain of salt. The LVW review, written by our musical-loving theater critic, is rapturous, but I'm certainly not alone in hating this movie. The film has plenty of problems that aren't music-related; for starters, it's horribly unfunny. Even though I was less than impressed with the original film, even the jokes from that version that I found funny are bungled in the remake, mostly by Broderick, who gives one of the worst performances of the year with his robotic line readings, stiff movements and endlessly buggy eyes. The only memorable songs are the ones imported from the original film, and the rest of the songs serve no purpose other than to grind the movie to a halt for three minutes or so. Every bit from the original - not exactly a model of subtlety itself - is hit twice as hard square on the nose, and the whole thing is pitched right to the back row. It's loud, awkward and hammy, and completely misses any sly humor or commentary that made its predecessor worthwhile. Absolutely dreadful. (Freudian slip: I accidentally typed "Nathan Lame" in the credits above.) Opened limited Dec. 16; in Las Vegas this week

Wolf Creek (Nathan Phillips, Kestie Morassi, Cassandra Magrath, John Jarratt, dir. Greg McLean)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Slant has named this one of the best movies of the year, and while I wouldn't go that far (they have a serious soft spot for horror movies), this is definitely the scariest and most well-crafted horror film I've seen in a very long time. I've all but given up on any studio-made horror project, since they're all remakes of 70s films or Asian films (or rip-offs of same). Only indie directors like McLean, or Eli Roth, or Rob Zombie, working usually with small budgets and unknown or little-known stars, seem to be willing to take chances and dig deeper into what's really frightening and visceral. This is an odd movie to be released on Christmas; it's likely to get lost in the shadows of all the big prestige pictures and dumb comedies, but if I had to pick one new movie to recommend this week, this would be it. Wide release

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Best of 2005: Comic books

I've got movie and TV lists coming soon in Las Vegas Weekly, but since I don't cover comics on any regular basis for them, I've put together a list of the best comics of 2005 here. Unlike movies and TV, I don't generally get free review copies of comics, although I've been on DC's press list for a while thanks to a few stories I wrote on their releases, and they send me stuff every so often. Drawn & Quarterly also sends occasional press releases and, very infrequently, a comic for review. (Incidentally, anyone who'd like to send me comics for review on this blog is welcome to email me.) So most of this is stuff that I bought myself and, therefore, already had an established interest in. That's why this is a more narrow list than it could be, and why I've combined ongoing and limited series into one list. I don't buy enough original graphic novels or trade paperbacks to warrant inclusion, so these are all single-issue comics, released in 2005.

1. Fell (Warren Ellis/Ben Templesmith, Image)
There was a time when I was worried that Warren Ellis's best work was behind him, as it had been years since he'd done anything as good as Transmetropolitan, The Authority or the early issues of Planetary. His string of self-contained mini-series for various publishers has been hit and miss, and his mainstream superhero work is weak. But Ellis was back in a big way this year, and this is his best work in a very long time. Considering that he's often credited/blamed for introducing decompression into mainstream comics, it's impressive that this series packs twice as much content as the average comic into only 16 story pages. It's incredibly disciplined craftsmanship, a great collaboration between Ellis and artist Ben Templesmith. The structure serves the story well. It stars your typical cynical Ellis protagonist but takes place in a fully realized surreal city, with great supporting characters and a sense of otherworldliness and menace that's greatly enhanced by the art. It's only three issues in, but I think Fell has the chance to become one of Ellis's greatest achievements.

2. Young Avengers (Allan Heinberg/Jim Cheung & various, Marvel)
This is a book that nearly everyone online thought would be a bad idea, and turned out to be Marvel's best launch since Runaways. Maybe it's thanks to his experience writing for The O.C., maybe it's thanks to his obvious love of Marvel continuity, and maybe it's just luck, but whatever it is, Allan Heinberg has a real knack for writing snappy dialogue, engaging characters and plots that weave the new in with the established. I've never been an Avengers fan and I'm not reading Brian Bendis's take on them now, but I still love this book and the way it takes advantage of the rich tapestry of the Marvel universe while doing what very few mainstream superhero comics do anymore - exploring new characters. Yes, there have been occasional problems with lateness, but the fill-in artists have generally done well, and the book's momentum hasn't really been hurt. This is one of the only comics that gets me excited (rather than annoyed) about interlocking, continuity-driven superhero universes, and makes me believe in their potential to inspire great storytelling.

3. Optic Nerve (Adrian Tomine, Drawn & Quarterly)
I don't remember where I first read Adrian Tomine's work, but I've been captivated for a long time by his simple, almost eerie short stories and vignettes about modern life, which are perceptive and funny, moving and sometimes disturbing. I don't read all that many indie comics, but I've picked up a couple of Tomine collections at San Diego in the last few years, and everything he does just blows me away in its powerful simplicity. Optic Nerve is Tomine's ongoing series, if by "ongoing" you mean "comes out whenever he feels like it." There was only one issue, number 10, out this year, and D&Q was nice enough to send it to me. It's the second part of a serialized graphic novel about a self-hating Asian dude and his overly enlightened girlfriend, and it's as great as anything Tomine's done. I like his shorter pieces for their abruptness and bleak outlook, but this longer story is rich in its own way (and just as bleak). Unlike a lot of indie cartoonists, Tomine's art is as good as his writing, uncluttered but evocative. Given the erratic publishing schedule, these stories probably read better in collected form, but I'm happy to get the individual chapters if they're willing to keep sending them.

4. Runaways (Brian K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona & various, Marvel)
After going on hiatus and then relaunching early this year, the magic could easily have been gone from this book. Thankfully, that hasn't been the case, and, along with Young Avengers and Gravity, this proves that new superhero creations are alive and well at Marvel. The first arc of the new series was a little long, and the sheer joy of newness has worn off a little since the original series, but Vaughan still has his incredible gift for suspense and cliffhangers and an uncanny ear for dialogue. He lovingly uses semi-obscure continuity without wallowing in it, and, since he's working with characters that he created, who don't have a long history in the Marvel universe, he's got a freedom to make drastic changes that people writing long-established characters don't have. Probably the most exhilarating read Marvel publishes.

5. Fables (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham & various, DC/Vertigo)
It's amazing to me that Willingham went almost this entire year without appearances by Snow and Bigby, who were the main characters in this book for three years or so, and it was still one of the best and most exciting reads out there. He's put together a cast of dozens and really created an incredibly rich world out of what at first seemed like a silly concept. On top of that, this year he revealed the solution to a mystery that's been in place since the first issue, and not only did it not ruin the book, it gave it a new reason for existing. The revelation was followed by a completely unrelated storyline, demonstrating just how limitless Willingham's world really is. That's not to discount Mark Buckingham, whose detailed and dynamic art is the book's greatest unheralded strength. The guest artists almost always do a good job, too, but Buckingham has really come in and made this book his own. I'm a little concerned about a dilution of the concept with the upcoming Jack of the Fables spin-off, but I think the world here is probably big enough to support two ongoing series.

6. Silent Dragon (Andy Diggle/Leinil Yu, DC/Wildstorm)
I found the first issue of this samurai sci-fi series nearly incomprehensible, and might have given up on it if it weren't for Yu's insanely creative and kinetic art. I'm glad I didn't, since the story has unfolded into a great action adventure, combining martial arts, cyberpunk and tongue-in-cheek humor with a twisty plot and the aforementioned top-notch art. Yu has always seemed ill-suited to superhero work, and I think his gritty, inventive linework has found the perfect match in this story. He's designed all sorts of ninjas and robots and ninja robots, and contributed greatly to the sense of excitement in Diggle's fast-paced story. It's a shame he's signed an exclusive with Marvel, meaning that once the last issue of this series is out, we're not likely to see more of it.

7. Y the Last Man (Brian K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra & various, DC/Vertigo)
Like Fables, this is a book that has been going for a long time and still finds new ways to open up its rich world to exciting possibilities. It's also a book that started with what on its face seems like a silly concept. Vaughan is the current king of the cliffhanger, and this book is the one where he pulls them out the most often, but the best thing is the way he commits to every insane plot twist and follows it through, sending the story in exciting new directions. Again like Fables, this is a book that answered one of its central mysteries this year and still remained fresh and unpredictable, and there's still so much unexplored potential that I can't imagine it getting stale any time soon.

8. Gravity (Sean McKeever/Mike Norton, Marvel)
The best thing that Marvel is doing right now is not the mega-crossover, but these little fun traditional superhero books taking place on the margins of their universe. McKeever puts across a simple, entertaining and intelligent story, using a fairly stock origin story but creating a very well-crafted new character and playing on the history of the Marvel universe to give his tale resonance beyond its own insular events. This is a series that didn't sell well and didn't get much publicity, but if Marvel is going to appeal to a new generation of readers, they need a new generation of heroes, and it starts with books like this (and Young Avengers and Runaways, of course).

9. Revelations (Paul Jenkins/Humberto Ramos, Dark Horse)
I was away from Jenkins's work for a time, and I'm still not sold on much of his superhero work, but this is exactly the kind of thing we should see more of in comics: A good old-fashioned detective story. The religious trappings are only a small part of what's going on in this story, which mixes conspiracies and murders with a very noir-ish protagonist and, of course, a sexy dame for him to bed down with. I don't much care for Ramos's distorted art, which is all wrong for the tone of the story, but so far it hasn't really gotten in the way of what's probably the best thing Jenkins has written since Inhumans.

10. New Warriors (Zeb Wells/Skottie Young, Marvel)
And we close again on the theme for this year: Fun, somewhat traditionalist superhero series set on the margins of the Marvel universe. In this case, these are established characters (ones which, I admit, I have a certain soft spot for), but Wells attacks them in a new way while respecting and building on previous continuity, something that many Warriors fans were worried about when this series was first announced. Like Gravity, this series was little-publicized and little-read, but it also deserves a return beyond its six issues, and if we're lucky, it will get one, possibly with a Gravity guest appearance.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Weekend viewing

The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1968)
I figured I ought to see this before seeing the new version, and also because it's supposed to be a comedy classic (Roger Ebert this week called it the funniest movie ever made). And...I may have missed something. Because I did not find it the funniest movie ever made. I didn't even find it funny in general, except sporadically. I remember seeing Mel Brooks movies when I was younger, and loving Spaceballs when I was probably 11 or 12, but the last Brooks movie I saw was Blazing Saddles, on a big screen at a revival house a few years ago, and I thought it was beyond stupid. So perhaps I have grown out of appreciating Brooks's humor (although I still smile at "I see your schwartz is as big as mine"), or maybe this movie is overrated. Either way, it doesn't have me looking forward to the remake.

Rize (David LaChapelle, 2005)
I was trying to catch up on some 2005 releases before voting on year-end awards, and I didn't quite make it under the deadline. It's fine, because while this is an entertaining film, I doubt I would have added it to my list of the best documentaries of the year. A fashion photographer and music video director, LaChapelle is at his best just filming the lithe bodies of the clown and krump dancers in inner city L.A. that are the focus of this film. As far as storytelling goes, it's a little haphazard, jumping around among the main subjects without much of a clear narrative thread. It just sort of starts and then stops, but the subjects are so charismatic and the phenomenon so interesting that it doesn't make a huge difference. It might have worked better as an hourlong special for MTV, or even just a music video, but as a feature it's still brief enough to be mostly engaging.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

New comics 12/14

Black Harvest #2 (Josh Howard, Devil's Due)
I liked the first issue of this series even though it was all set-up and atmosphere, and I like this issue, too, even though it's also all set-up and atmosphere. I do get a little wary of these horror series that start all, "Something bad is happening" and suck you in by making you wonder what's up with all the creepy stuff, and then just fail to deliver. Mnemovore was like that, and this certainly has the potential to be like that too. We're a third of the way in and Howard has yet to really reveal anything, but I like where he's going and I like his angular, cartoony art, so I'll stick around to see what happens.

Cable & Deadpool #23 (Fabian Nicieza/Patrick Zircher & Dave Ross, Marvel)
After the confusing way this storyline started out, it wraps up in a much more straightforward manner, and has an interesting twist at the end that's not your typical defeat of a villain. Ross's fill-in pages sometimes mix a little uneasily with Zircher's pages, but the inker is the same and the stylistic shift is not too jarring. Next issue, with Spider-Man fighting Deadpool, looks to be a more light-hearted quip-fest, which sounds good to me after all this dense plotting.

DMZ #2 (Brian Wood/Riccardo Burchielli, DC/Vertigo)
I'm still not quite sure what to make of this book. The first issue was a little awkward, but now that the set-up is out of the way, I do find myself a bit interested in Wood's war-torn Manhattan and wondering about the background of the civil war he's set up. On the other hand, the characters are all a little too stereotypically left-wing bleeding heart, and the political message is a little on the nose. If the characterization and plotting can outstrip the clumsy politics (and I'm not yet sure that it can), this might be worth reading. I suppose I'll give it another issue to find out.

Fables #44 (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham, DC/Vertigo)
This storyline is clearly not going in the politicized direction that I expected, although we do get a detour to modern-day Baghdad in this issue. Actually, although I know that Willingham is fairly conservative, he seems to be presenting Prince Charming as a Bush allegory in this issue - a charming pretty boy who always gets what he wants going after elected office just because he covets it, and then not knowing how to handle the serious stuff once he's actually in charge. Or maybe I'm reading too much into things. Either way, this is the most exciting issue yet of this story, and I don't even miss Snow and Bigby much. The ending is nicely twisted, and I look forward to seeing how Willingham integrated the Arabian fables into his cast.

GLX-Mas Special (Dan Slott/various, Marvel)
I hope this is a sign that there is more GLA stuff to come from Slott and Marvel, because there's plenty of fun potential in these characters. This issue highlights Slott's great sense of humor and inventiveness, puts a spotlight on each of the GLA characters and features some varied and expressive art. Slott clearly has plenty of stories to tell here, and I think the combination of humor and love for superhero storytelling makes this the best of his varied Marvel work.

Noble Causes #15 (Jay Faerber/Fran Bueno & Freddie E. Williams, Image)
I didn't write about the last two issues because I read them late thanks to a shipping mix-up, so let me say that I think the introduction of the Blackthorne family as nemeses to the Nobles is inspired, and has given this book a whole new lease on life. After the excellent cliffhangers of the last two issues, this one is a little more subdued, but I suppose there's a limit on how many shocking hook-ups you can have between the two families before pushing believability. I'm not a huge fan of Williams's art in the "flashback" sequences, which are really just part of the regular story, but overall I'm more interested in this book than I have been in a while.

Secret War #5 (Brian Michael Bendis/Gabriele Dell'Otto, Marvel)
Last week the Kevin Smith Spider-Man series, and now this? It's like an alternate universe or something. Obivously this wasn't as late as the Smith series, but it was still scheduled very poorly, and, as a big crossover event, loses a lot more by being late than the inconsequential Smith series does. On top of that, the last half of this series has been very anticlimactic, and this issue doesn't redeem it. Bendis sets up Nick Fury as some sort of fugitive from justice, which will probably be undone in some big New Avengers storyline that I won't read, and introduces a semi-interesting new character in Daisy Johnson, who's at least more fleshed out than Layla Miller. Otherwise, it's pretty much a waste, and again confirms to me that Bendis is best playing in smaller parts of the sandbox than in writing these huge, world-changing events. I think I've finally learned my lesson about what stuff of his to read.

Also out this week: X-Factor #1, continuing Peter David's story from his Madrox mini-series, which I really was looking forward to, but was not at my local store thanks to another shipping mishap. I'll report on it next week, I hope.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Movies opening this week

King Kong (Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, dir. Peter Jackson)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
As excited as so many people have gotten over this movie, I am already sort of bored with it. It's a fun spectacle that's way too long, but if you expect that you'll like it, you will. As much as I admire Peter Jackson's skill and passion and all the effort that went into making this movie, it still bothers me a little that so much talent and so many resources are expended on a lavish re-creation of an old movie. I realize that this is exactly what Jackson wanted to do (and it's his lifelong dream project), but I wish that the very small number of directors in Hollywood with Jackson's sort of clout would take the risk of actually telling a new story. Wide release

Sunday, December 11, 2005

New comics 12/7

Jonah Hex #2 (Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray/Luke Ross, DC)
I like that DC is expanding their horizons to include non-superhero books that aren't tied to their intricate continuity, but after two issues I've concluded that this book is just boring. It tells simple, done-in-one stories in a straightforward manner, and if you're a particular fan of the Hex character or Western comics in general, you might enjoy it. But for me, it's just too generic and unexciting to keep reading, even if the art is nice. I commend the effort and would be happy to see it succeed, but I won't be buying more issues.

New Warriors #6 (Zeb Wells/Skottie Young, Marvel)
The mini-series concludes with another fun and entertaining story that makes me sad to see it all come to a close. There's some meta business that hints that there might be another series if the trade sells well, and Wells is even optimistic enough to use the last page for a sort of cliffhanger to set up potential future storylines. I'd be more than pleased to see this book come back, in any form, but I'm not holding my breath.

Powers #15 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Avon Oeming, Marvel/Icon)
I still have no idea what the weird rants in the comedy club have to do with anything, and they're starting to get annoying. The main story, however, gets even more and more interesting, and it looks like Bendis is setting up both of his main characters to get powers. Which could be a bad thing - the whole idea of the series was always the human cops investigating the superhuman crimes - but also could open doors for a lot of different sorts of stories. This book has been going long enough that a change in status quo is good for it, and Bendis has always been unafraid of making those sorts of changes. All his flashy Marvel projects get all the attention, but with Bendis leaving The Pulse, this is the only book of his I'll be reading, and the one that's consistently telling daring stories and pushing the envelope.

Y the Last Man #40 (Brian K. Vaughan/Goran Sudzuka, DC/Vertigo)
Ostensibly a stand-alone issue, but it really flows from last issue as well as from previous storylines, and makes me want to go back and re-read earlier issues to make sure I have a handle on the prior events that influence this issue. Even with Yorick absent for most of the issue, Vaughan tells another twisty and exciting story, illuminating a new aspect of the female-dominated society and moving his vast tableau of characters another step forward. As always, it's got the feel that anything could happen next, and I have no doubt that it will.

Also out this week: The Surrogates #3, a mini-series midpoint that needs no further discussion. And Spider-Man/Black Cat #4, which I plan to read as soon as I re-read the first three issues, which came out like three years ago. The griping online about Kevin Smith's lateness is understandable but taken far too seriously. Do I wish the book had been out three years ago? Of course. But I'm not going to deprive myself of reading the second half of the story out of spite. Once all six issues are out, it'll be collected in one trade and available that way forever, and no one will remember the lateness. They'll read the story in one chunk, and they'll like it or not based solely on its narrative merits, which is as it should be.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Movies opening this week

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, dir. Andrew Adamson)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
After all the hype and controversy, the actual act of seeing the movie was sort of a disappointing afterthought. It's perfectly fine, and I imagine it'll make a lot of money, but it definitely didn't excite me or strike me as doing anything other than riding the coattails of other similar movies that have been successful recently. I reread the book a few weeks ago to prepare for doing the review, and one of the things that struck me was how short it was and how unsuited it seemed for an epic big-screen adaptation such as this. In adding all the sweeping battle scenes and extra seriousness, the movie kind of undermines the quaint charm of the book, which was what I most enjoyed about it. It's almost like they decided they needed a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy epic first, and then looked for a book that would fit the bill, rather than deciding to make the book into a film. Even so, there are lots of nice moments, and it sticks to the book's storyline fairly closely, so I'm sure most fans will be pleased. Wide release

Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic (Sarah Silverman, dir. Liam Lynch)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I really like Sarah Silverman, but there is absolutely no reason to see this movie in a theater. Wait until it's on Comedy Central (preferably on their late night "Secret Stash" so they don't bleep the profanity), then tape it and fast forward through the tedious skits and musical numbers. You probably won't have to wait more than a few months for the opportunity, either. Opened limited Nov. 11; in Las Vegas this week

Syriana (Matt Damon, George Clooney, Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Siddig, dir. Stephen Gaghan)
After all the reviews I read describing how hard it was to follow the plot of this movie, I think I was expecting something completely incomprehensible, and while there were times when I was a little lost, by the end all the pieces fit together and made sense to me, so I'm not quite sure what the big deal was. I could be mistaken, of course, but I think I understood everything. Plus, it's clearly part of what the movie's trying to do to confuse the viewer a bit, to plunge you into this unfamiliar world that people don't know a lot about, and show you how complex it is yet how much it affects the lives of so many people. So if the complexity didn't bother me, other things did, primarily that it's just so dry. The characters might as well have just been named "CIA Agent" and "Oil Company Executive" for all of the depth and humanity they had. The few attempts to give them personal lives came off as forced, and the dialogue is full of facts and figures that Gaghan must have read in his research. The stuff he's saying is interesting, and the actors do their best to give life to their flat characters, but ultimately this is a lecture dressed up as a narrative. Opened limited Nov. 23; wide release this week

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The average moviegoer

I was in the comic book store yesterday, picking up my weekly haul, and as usual I was talking about movies with the two brothers who own the store (they are huge movie buffs). Another customer who was standing around decided to join the conversation and announced that he was not planning to go to the movies next until May 2006. Since we were in a comic book store, I guessed that he planned to see the third X-Men movie. Many comic book fans will only see movies that are based on comic books. But no, the one movie that will get this guy into a theater in the next six months is the remake of The Poseidon Adventure. Sad enough as it is that he has already discounted every other movie to be released between now and May, it's even sadder to think that all this talk about how the box office slump is caused by bad movies and pointless remakes is completely off the mark. Clearly the box office slump is caused by morons like this guy. Thanks, dude.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Weekend viewing

King Kong (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)
I saw this movie a long time ago, when I was maybe ten years old, so it seemed reasonable to revisit it before seeing the upcoming remake, and this is also a brand new DVD reissue. What impressed me most, actually, is how well the special effects hold up, especially the sequence pitting Kong against the T. Rex. They're nearly as fluid as CGI at times, and always complement the story. Which, naturally, is an exciting adventure yarn, as popcorn as popcorn flicks get. Fay Wray's sexually-charged performance is outstanding (she doesn't get enough screen time), and Robert Armstrong's quick-talking movie director is far more entertaining than Wray's boring love interest. It's hard to imagine how Peter Jackson plans to turn this into a three-hour epic, although I imagine it'll involve expanding the Kong in New York scenes, which are the most famous but only represent about 20 minutes of this 100-minute movie.

Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, 2003)
I rented this mainly because of its place on Slant's 100 Essential Films list, and because I've been doing my best to get into French minimalist cinema (Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat). I do think there's something in the genre that's worth working toward understanding (I've sort of had it with Breillat but I'm planning to see more Denis), but whatever that is it's definitely not in this movie. Dumont follows two incredibly irritating and unlikeable protagonists as they fight, fuck, fail to communicate effectively and drive around aimlessly in the titular California desert town, utilizing the long (long, long) takes, banal or nonexistent dialogue and sudden, inexplicable explosions of violence that are the hallmarks of the French minimalist genre. The sex is incredibly graphic and equally unerotic, and while it may be realistic, it doesn't convey anything. There are some striking images of the desert landscape, but Dumont seems to be doing all he can to strip away all traditional moviemaking elements and replace them with nothing but empty pretension.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

TV update: Returning shows

Alias (ABC)
Given ABC's recent announcement that this will indeed be the show's last season, I'm inclined to forigve any shortcomings in hopes that the writers will rally for final episodes that bring some sense of continuity and coherence to the show as a whole. Already we've seen Syd's old professor from the first season show up in a cameo, and I know Vaughn's coming back in a dream sequence in a couple of weeks. Although it's too bad when a show wraps up with a season all about new characters (like The X-Files did, for example), I haven't found Rachel or Tom Grace to be especially annoying. They've been integrated fairly well into the cast, and it's understandable that the producers wanted someone to go out and wear skimpy outfits and kick ass while Jennifer Garner was busy being knocked up. But it's also too bad that they couldn't have gotten Mia Maestro to do it, since at least hers is an established character. It's hard to kick ass while in a coma, I guess. It's a shame that the ratings have declined to the point that ABC decided to cancel the show, but it's probably time for it to go. I only hope that J.J. Abrams can be bothered to tear himself away from his big movie career and return to write the final episode, something he didn't do with Felicity (which always bugged me).

Boston Legal (ABC)
Only in its second season, this show is already suffering from the same fate as later seasons of Ally McBeal, with David E. Kelley relying on increasingly stupider and more preposterous legal cases and plot twists to constantly up the stakes. We've also got cast turnover, pointless new characters and annoying quirks all over the place, more elements that led to the swift decline of Ally McBeal. I'm on the edge of giving up on this show, but I still love the interactions between James Spader and William Shatner, plus most of what Candice Bergen does, and I even sort of like the new character played by Julie Bowen. I miss Rhona Mitra, though, and the two new young associates are already adrift in the larger plotlines. The one thing I still love about this show is the way it deals sensitively and seriously with getting older in a medium that is so obsessed with youth. Kelley gets further and further away from that with every ridiculous case, though, and I'm not sure if the show can ever get back on the track it's so violently headed off of.

Lost (ABC)
I still think this is an incredibly fascinating and well-crafted show, even if some people have gotten impatient with the slow pace and the unanswered questions. I like the introduction of the new characters this season, even if Ana-Lucia is sort of irritating, and I like that this is a true ensemble show, that the writers aren't afraid to go a week or two without shoehorning in every single character, including the ostensible leads (Jack, Kate, Locke). In that way it's a lot like a team comic book, which is sort of what Damon Lindelof hinted in this interview about his upcoming Marvel comics work. It's certainly paced like a lot of comics, with the interlocking ongoing stories and sprawling cast. The one thing that has grown a little tiresome for me this season is the flashbacks, which seem largely to have outlived their usefulness. Aside from illustrating how the characters are all connected (which we get already), they aren't doing enough to teach us about who they are as people, and of course they slow down the pace of developments on the island. However, probably one of every two is still relatively interesting, and the rest of the show remains really tight. I think that since the newness of the first season, when nearly every episode delivered some unexpected twist, has worn off, there's less excitement to the show, but underneath all the twists, it's still exceptional drama.

Numbers (CBS)
I only watched the first episode this season, since, while I think this is a relatively interesting twist on the procedural genre, I'm just bored with the same formula each week. The math aside, the cases were never more creative than those on any of a dozen other cop shows, and while I like the characters, the little character moments were just a small part of the overall show. I still think this is a decent little program, and it's nice that it's doing well, but I just don't have enough time in my schedule to catch it every week (or any week, apparently).

South Park (Comedy Central)
I don't know why I even bother with this show anymore. I can't remember the last time I found it funny. Since there are only about eight episodes a season and it's only a half hour show, it's not much of a burden to keep watching, but since I started watching Invasion (which is on at the same time), I haven't even really made that much of an effort to catch each episode. This season has been full of the same problems that have been plaguing the show for a while, including heavy-handed statements on current events, unfunny jokes repeated over and over again, and points that get made in the first five minutes and then beaten into the ground over the course of the rest of the episode. Every once in a while, there is a weird episode that's non-political and ends up being sort of funny, but this show is clearly long past its prime.

Survivor (CBS)
Here's another show that's past its prime, although there's enough entertainment value to keep watching, for now. The first of last season's two editions was dreadfully boring, but the second managed to spice things up a bit. The current edition falls somewhere in between the two, with some interesting twists (bringing Bobby Jon and Stephenie back from last season turned out to be a good move) and watchable players. But there's no way to shake the sense that the show has no new tricks up its sleeve, that we're just watching the same game play out over and over again with little in the way of innovation. I watch very few reality shows that I don't have to write about, so for me to stick with this show it has to be pretty compelling. Host Jeff Probst is set to leave after the next installment, and that might be time for me to leave as well.

Veronica Mars (UPN)
And here we are saving the best for last as always. Despite the unenviable task of coming up with a new mystery after actually answering important questions in the first season finale, this has remained the most complex, compelling, clever and flat-out best show on TV. They've introduced a new overarching mystery (the school bus crash) and several smaller mysteries, expanded on secondary characters and introduced intriguing new characters without losing sight of the older characters that made the show what it was. I miss Wallace (although his continued presence in the opening credits indicates he'll be returning), but otherwise I'm not sure I can criticize a single thing this show's done this season. Thankfully, the quality has been rewarded with higher ratings, which are still small but enough for the show to be considered a success for UPN. It annoys me that it's on against Lost (a show whose similar serialized structure means a lot of fan overlap), but if the move has worked and will allow the show's continued success, I'm more than happy to keep on taping it.