Saturday, April 30, 2005

Movies opening this week

House of D (Anton Yelchin, Tea Leoni, Robin Williams, dir. David Duchovny)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I like David Duchovny. I think he's smart and he's talented. The episodes of The X-Files that he wrote and directed were funny and kind of offbeat and showed that he had a good sense of who the characters were. But this is just a bad movie, plain and simple. It's one of those things where someone is stretching way too hard for respectability, like if they get really serious and "touching," they'll win Oscars or critical acclaim or whatever. Duchovny should've stuck with being sarcastic and offbeat. And stayed far, far away from the coming-of-age drama. Opened limited April 15; in Las Vegas this week

Nobody Knows (Yuya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I thought this was really well-done, in a very meticulous way that meant every detail contributed significantly to the overall tone and feel. Just the way Kore-eda would linger a little longer than expected over certain objects, or at the end of certain scenes, or the way he kept coming back to close-ups of the children's feet, it all gave off the impression of care, while contributing to both the wonder and unease of the way the children lived. A great example of how a clear but unobtrusive visual style can really enhance the telling of a story that's not generally flashy or stylized. Opened limited February 4; in Las Vegas this week

XXX: State of the Union (Ice Cube, Scott Speedman, Willem Dafoe, Samuel L. Jackson, dir. Lee Tamahori)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I just can't help thinking about how harsh the producers were to Vin Diesel for not coming back. Not only does his character's death get a one-line mention in this movie, but the recent re-released DVD of the original has a tacked-on scene of the character's death, with another actor in the role. They are really bitter about his leaving. Wide release

Monday, April 25, 2005

Weekend viewing

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (W.D. Richter, 1984)
Sometimes it is just as important to see a movie that's garnered a rabid cult following as to see an acknowledged masterpiece or an important touchstone of cultural history. I'm not sure this was one of those times, though. Banzai is absurdist and weird, sure, and has a totally inane sci-fi plot that makes it easy to see why it's got such a devoted fanbase of geeks. But, a few chuckles aside, I wasn't much amused, although there is a certain goofy, let's-put-on-a-show kind of charm about the whole thing. Jeff Goldblum is inherently entertaining, especially since his character spends nearly the entire movie dressed inexplicably as a cowboy. I was struck most by Peter Weller as the title character, though. Where have you gone, Peter Weller? He plays Buckaroo with such deadpan straightforwardness that he completely sells the idea of this dedicated neurosurgeon/rock star/kung fu master/rocket scientist. It reminded me of his performance in David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, where he's another deadpan protagonist in a similarly absurdist world.

La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
I think I have seen too many European art movies to truly be able to appreciate this film, since it just seemed to me like a bunch of European art movie cliches strung together in an episodic structure for three hours. Of course, it's important to remember that many of those cliches were invented here (as was, apparently, the term "papparazzi"), but it's hard to unremember all the other places I've seen them. So, yeah, I found the story kind of meandering (and, man, is this movie long), and the themes ("Oh, the life of the high society, it is so empty and meaningless") a little basic, but it sure does look great.

Less Than Zero (Marek Kanievska, 1987)
I should just stop watching cinematic adaptations of Bret Easton Ellis novels, because they all bore me. I'm not even sure where I got the idea that I wanted to see this movie (perhaps, given that it was right after Buckaroo Banzai on my NetFlix queue, it was from watching I Love the 80s?), but it's totally forgettable aside from Robert Downey Jr.'s prophetic performance as a junkie. It's kind of amusing the way it takes Ellis's nihilistic prose and molds into an 80s teen movie starring Andrew McCarthy, although an admittedly darker and grittier one than the average. Still, it gets a marginally happy ending and an optimistic tone of sorts. The best thing was the soundtrack, supervised by the great Rick Rubin, which included such gems as a cover of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" by Slayer.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

New comics 4/20

Cable & Deadpool #14 (Fabian Nicieza/Patrick Zircher, Marvel)
This is billed as the second part of a two-part story, although Nicieza has, from the beginning of the series, basically just been keeping an ongoing serial narrative, which is refreshing to see from Marvel these days. This issue especially doesn't feel like the end of anything, although it sort of resolves the murder mystery story in a particularly unresolved way. It also actually makes a point of putting the book in continuity with the recent X-Force mini-series; even though I don't care at all about that series, it's always nice to see a writer paying attention to continuity, and Nicieza is one of the best when it comes to that. As always, a much stronger read than you'd expect from the subject matter.

Ex Machina #10 (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
An interesting conclusion to the "Tag" storyline that raises more questions than it answers, but in a good way. The opening sequence is just wonderful, one of the creepiest and most disurbing scenes I've read in a comic book, paced perfectly both by Vaughan and by Harris, with increasingly menacing art. Really excellent storytelling.

Livewires #3 (Adam Warren/Rick Mays, Marvel)
After the initial amusement of the first issue (and Warren's humor is always welcome), I'm kind of getting bored of this series. There isn't much in the way of an overarching story (although hints are made to that effect in this issue) and the characters are no more than the archetypes they were painted as in the first issue. Frankly, for all the jokes and the action set pieces, Warren has pretty much lost my interest.

Runaways #3 (Brian K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona, Marvel)
There is some of the stereotypical "heroes have a misunderstanding and then fight" bit in this issue, but, as he did with the Cloak & Dagger crossover in the first series, Vaughan doesn't completely go the obvious route. I wonder at some of the characterization of the Excelsior members, especially Darkhawk, in this issue, but I trust all will be revealed soon enough, and I am curious about the identity of the mysterious figure on the last page.

Savage Dragon #121 (Erik Larsen, Image)
I don't really mind this book coming out infrequently these days, as Larsen is clearly making sure that the quality doesn't slip. It's a little weird that characters are still discussing results of the election five months after it happened in the real world, but it looks like Larsen is getting ready for another big change in the status quo, and I'm interested to see where that goes. I also like that he reminds us this issue that Mr. Glum isn't just comic relief, and shows some true consequences of Jennifer losing her powers. This is a book that never stands still, and Larsen is still able to take it in unexpected directions.

X-Men #169 (Peter Milligan/Salvador Larroca, Marvel)
Milligan's "Golgotha" arc has been all over the place, and this issue is one of those stories where the villain makes the heroes each face their worst nightmares. It's okay as those things go, although Milligan is still stuck with some of Chuck Austen's poor characterization, and the whole Bobby/Alex/Lorna love triangle is completely stupid and unbelievable. I'm not sure how this will all wrap up next issue as anything resembling a coherent story, but I'm willing to give Milligan a little more time to show me he knows what he's doing.

Young Avengers #3 (Allen Heinberg/Jim Cheung, Marvel)
Just may have surpassed Runaways as Marvel's best teen book. Like Vaughan, Heinberg knows how to use continuity to his advantage, weaving in elements of past stories without letting it bog down the current story he's telling with new characters. There are some interesting revelations in this issue, including one that has some Christopher Priest fans upset because it seems to negate one of his characters from The Crew. I have enough faith in Heinberg that I think he'll work it all in, though. Aside from the continuity, this is just a really good read, with sharp dialogue, interesting characterization and fun cliffhangers in each issue. Definitely worth checking out.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Movies opening this week

The Interpreter (Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, dir. Sydney Pollack)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This has been getting a lot of middling to poor reviews, although some critics really seem to like it, and I think my own approval of it is due mostly to the general paucity of good thrillers. Not that this is a bad thriller, but it's kind of slow and ponderous, with moments of excellent suspense. I think a lot of critics are disappointed less with what the film does than with what it doesn't do, i.e. really hit head-on the political issues that it kind of dances around. It's very tasteful and restrained, which isn't necessarily always good, but I think it's unfair to expect real nuanced political commentary from such a big, mainstream thriller, and, moreover, from a middlebrow director like Pollack. Slate has a very interesting analysis of Pollack's career, which makes him out to be one of the great hack directors along the lines of people like Arthur Miller and Norman Jewison. Not that people like that can't turn out great movies; it's just that they do so almost by happy accident than anything else. And The Interpreter isn't a great movie, but it's a pretty good one, and worth a look. Wide release

Kung Fu Hustle (Qiu Yuen, Wah Yuen, Stephen Chow, dir. Stephen Chow)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I'm in the extreme critical minority on this one, but unlike many movies where I disagree with critical consensus, I'm not going to hold people who love this movie in contempt. It's certainly unique and different, and if you like slapstick or martial arts (neither of which are my favorite genres), you may give it more latitude than I have. Even so, I did find it repetitive and tiring, and quite unengaging and hollow beyond its flashiness. Opened limited Apr. 8; wide release this week

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

TV update

24 (Fox, Mondays, 9 p.m.)
Desperate Housewives (ABC, Sundays, 9 p.m.)
The O.C. (Fox, Thursdays, 8 p.m.)
I think it's time for a purge, and these are probably going to be the shows to go. 24 is just spinning its wheels, doing the same things over and over again, and I've gotten tired of the shoddy continuity and poor planning by the writers. It's so obvious that the season-long arcs are made up as they go along, and this show's format really needs tight continuity more than others. I could forgive that sort of thing early on in the show, when just the concept was enough, but since they clearly haven't come up with any new ideas since season one, I'm done. As for Desperate Housewives and The O.C., which just a couple of months ago I claimed were still entertaining enough to keep me watching, the entertainment value has seriously diminished. DH has slipped quickly, with the writers clearly unable to keep up the sharp tone and the intriguing mysteries. The characters aren't likeable, the dialogue is rarely funny anymore, and the plotting is sloppier than 24. I'm not attached enough to the show to stick around to see if it gets better. I'm more attached to The O.C., which was often brilliant in its first season, but after giving them nearly this entire season to find their footing, I give up. Again, the dialogue is rarely funny, the characters are often unlikeable, and the plots go nowhere. I could use more time to watch shows I actually enjoy or check out new stuff that I've been meaning to watch. I'll finish this season on these, but I probably won't be back in the fall.

Survivor (CBS, Thursdays, 8 p.m.)
This has turned out to be quite a good season, much better than the snooze-fest that was the Vanuatu season. Although it's seemed almost cruel to allow one tribe to dwindle away to nothing, the truth is it's one of the smartest things Mark Burnett's ever done: No twists, no meddling with the game, just letting things play out even if they produce lopsided results. Of course the whole thing is manipulated by producers, but within that framework what's happened this season feels real, and creates a real sense of excitement for seeing what happens next in the game. It also helps that there are a lot of genuinely likeable players and not too many complete assholes, and I'd actually be happy to see a number of them win. I often think this show has run out of steam and done everything it can with its premise, but then something like this comes along and I'm as interested as ever.

Eyes (ABC, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.)
Okay, everyone needs to start watching this show right now. This should be the new drama sensation on ABC, not the lame, predictable, sappy Grey's Anatomy. It's slick, stylish, funny, smart, sexy - all those hip adjectives that critics love. It's got a great cast - who knew Tim Daly was so clever and charming? Who knew that Rayanne from My So-Called Life could be a buttoned-down vixen-in-waiting? And thank goodness more Melrose Place alums are getting work - Laura Leighton is still damn hot. The private-eye plots here are light and intriguing, the characters are layered and compelling, and the ongoing story is more than enough to keep me coming back each week. It's like creator John McNamara's last show, Fastlane, except with better and more intricate writing, less emphasis on skin and, sadly, probably lower ratings. Start watching now.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

New comics 4/13

Fables #36 (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham, DC/Vertigo)
It's nice to have Buckingham back on art, and to get back to the main story. This promises to be another momentous arc, like "March of the Wooden Soldiers," with the fables taking on the Adversary and, presumably, finally finding out who it is. Willingham writes some nice banter between the goblin soldiers at the beginning of the issue and really gives a good sense of what the homeland is like under the Adversary's rule with just a few scenes. I'm really looking forward to seeing where this is headed.

Mnemovore #1 (Hans Rodionoff & Ray Fawkes/Mike Huddleston, DC/Vertigo)
Rodionoff wrote the surprisingly well-received Man-Thing mini-series for Marvel recently, and there's an interesting concept behind this series, so I had high hopes for it. It's really hard to find genuinely creepy and well-done horror in comics, and this does a good job, with the story of an amnesiac snowboarder who discovers a strange creature that steals people's memories. Rodionoff and Fawkes create both an effective human drama about trying to pick up the pieces of one's life after a trauma, and a disturbing story about a Lovecraftian creature that preys on a deep-seated human fear. Huddleston's art is atmospheric and dark, and his painted cover is awesome. The concept could take a turn for the silly in later issues, but for now I'm intrigued.

Noble Causes #9 (Jay Faerber/Fran Bueno, Image)
Kind of a quiet issue with not much going on, as the cliffhanger from last issue of the robot Liz is essentially dispatched in the previouslies, and the alien planet storyline kind of stagnates. There is some interesting character development for Celeste, who's been relegated to the background for much of the series, but overall this highlights one of the drawbacks of the soap-style approach: Plots move very slowly.

Powers #10 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Avon Oeming, Marvel/Icon)
This, on the other hand, from the master of decompression, moves very quickly, and makes it clear that Deena's developing powers, rather than the murders of Blackguard and the Joke, are the real focus of this arc. Maybe it's a zeitgeist thing, but I found it interesting that the solution to the mystery in this issue involves a similar motivation to the killer in Identity Crisis. Once again we have the wife of a hero who can't take not being the center of attention, who has a pathological need to be part of the superhero life, and is willing to go to questionable extremes to get it. Once she crosses that line, her tactics end up backfiring and spiraling out of control into murder. There are a lot of difference between this story and Identity Crisis, but I found it interesting that the idea of a mentally unstable superhero wife has now played prominently into two major stories in mainstream comics in the last few months.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Movies opening this week

The Amityville Horror (Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George, Jesse James, dir. Andrew Douglas)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
The state of horror cinema is so pathetic right now. Every marginally successful horror movie from the 70s, good or bad, is in the works for a remake, as is every successful Asian horror film. There is such a dearth of original ideas in American horror filmmaking that it's laughable. Someone asked me recently what the last good new horror movie I saw was, and it took me forever to think of one. I came up with Brad Anderson's The Machinist, which isn't even a straight horror film, but it was the only good one I could think of. Strangely enough, Scott Kosar, who wrote The Machinist, also wrote both this crapfest and the crappy 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I think a lot of the quality is in the hands of the producers (who in the case are led by super-hack Michael Bay, and are just looking for a quick buck) and the director (who in this case is a first-time feature director who started in commercials; ditto for Chainsaw). Kosar clearly understands the mechanics of the horror film; he just needs a talented director like Anderson to bring his scripts to life. Not that the script for The Machinist was even that brilliant, but Anderson brought a great deal of style and nuance to it. Now Kosar is going to be writing and Anderson is going to be directing a remake of George Romero's The Crazies. I'm torn on this one: On the one hand, I'm happy to see the talented Anderson doing more work, and especially in the horror genre where he has excelled, and clearly he and Kosar worked together well on The Machinist. On the other hand, it's yet another remake, and as such it'll probably get a higher profile and more pressure to be mainstream. Plus, I liked Anderson's own screenplays for his earlier films, and I'd like to see him get back to that. But I remain cautiously optimistic. As for this particular film, what can I say? It's a moderate improvement over the blah original. It's nothing special, but it'll make a bunch of money. Oh, and I protest the career of Ryan Reynolds, just in general. Wide release

Dear Frankie (Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Gerard Butler, dir. Shona Auerbach)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Seriously, I saw this movie like eight months ago and after a million delays it's finally coming to Vegas. It's totally mediocre, not worth some of the glowing reviews it's gotten, and I haven't given it any thought since writing that review probably seven months ago, so I have nothing to say. Opened limited Mar. 4; in Las Vegas this week

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Weekend viewing

The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979)
Watched to prepare for seeing and reviewing the remake this week. Unlike a lot of horror movies being remade these days, the original in this case really isn't all that good. It was a huge hit in 1979 but hasn't aged well, and is lumbering, slow and not particularly scary. It does have a certain true-to-life feel to it that lends an air of creepiness - the scares are low-key enough that you could imagine similar things really happening. But mostly it's just boring, and it all proceeds in an obvious and tired way toward the finale. Feels more like a TV movie-of-the-week ripped from the headlines (which is in a way what it was) than anything approaching a horror classic.

Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
Very rarely do I watch a film once, end up dissatisfied, and then want to watch it again. But after seeing Donnie Darko the first time a few years ago, I was so disappointed and confused about what the big deal was that I felt it was worth seeing it again, in the extended director's cut. And guess what? I still don't see the appeal. I tried really hard to pay attention this time, and supposedly some of the things that Kelly has added to the director's cut illuminate the vagaries of the story. But I still left the film feeling let down, and I find the ending such an anticlimax that it's hard for me to credit all the things about the rest of the film that actually are quite good. Kelly does a good job capturing the stultifying dullness of high school, and crafts interesting teen characters in Donnie and his girlfriend Gretchen. The cast is superb, including both Gyllenhaals (Jake and Maggie, who is one of my absolute favorite actresses and, I admit, my biggest celebrity crush of the moment), Patrick Swayze putting his smarminess to good use, and the heartbreaking Mary McDonnell, who is just amazing as Donnie's mother and does more with a simple twitch of her mouth than most actors can do with their whole body. That said, the film really succeeds or fails on the sci-fi plot, which, despite ridiculously convoluted attempts to explain it by rabid fans (as I discovered online), is just a whole lot of mumbo jumbo that makes little sense. Donnie is a messiah figure? Big fucking deal. I saw the film this time with a rabid fan who's seen it over ten times; even she admitted that she keeps watching it over and over again because she always feels like there's something she missed. Any movie that can't make itself coherent in more than ten viewings isn't deep; it's just not very good.

Trekkies 2 (Roger Nygard, 2004)
I enjoyed the first Trekkies well enough, and the sequel is amusing if not quite up to the original's standards. There are only so many ways you can look at Star Trek fandom without repeating yourself, and Nygard seems to have been unable to find a good new hook, so the movie is a mix of looking at international Trek fans, catching up with some people from the first movie and finding a few more unique expressions of Trek love (including a number of Trek tribute bands). It's also shot on video, unlike the first movie which was shot on film, and on the whole has a more haphazard feel. But Trek fans are inherently interesting, and all Nygard really has to do is turn on the camera and let them talk, and I'm entertained. It's doubtful he'll find enough new material for a Trekkies 3, though.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Pulitzer Prize-winning criticism

This year's Pulitzer Prize winners were announced last week, and the winner of the prize for criticism was Joe Morgenstern, film critic for the Wall Street Journal. This is only the third time since the criticism prize was established in 1970 that a film critic has won (the other winners were Roger Ebert in 1975 and The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter in 2003). You can read the reviews Morgenstern submitted for the prize here. Now, I hadn't read Morgenstern before, probably because he's not listed on Rotten Tomatoes, but I was curious to see exactly what kind of criticism was winning such a prestigious award. And, really, I'm not all that impressed.

Not to say that I could do better, or to come off as jealous, but Morgenstern's work strikes me as dry, predictable and perfectly competent. He writes clearly and obviously has a deep knowledge of film history, but very little of what he says is revelatory or especially illuminating. Of the reviews submitted for consideration, almost every one toes the critical line - Morgenstern loved critical favorites Sideways, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Incredibles and Hotel Rwanda, although he's somewhat less effusive about The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby. His writing, while crisp and clean, is staid and subdued, exactly what you'd expect from film criticism in the Wall Street Journal, but never exciting or surprising.

I guess I shouldn't be too disappointed, since the Pulitzer, after all, is itself a venerable and not particularly risk-taking institution. Maybe it was naive of me to expect an eye-opening and exhilarating experience reading Morgenstern's work. But looking at it only to find it so prosaic and, honestly, uninspired, was a little saddening. I mean, is this what we are striving for in film criticism in this country? Of course I shouldn't put so much stock in awards, but I think of it this way: Just as critics are judged by the average person based on the standard of Roger Ebert, because he's famous, so are they going to be judged by fellow journalists (who respect the Pulitzer) by the standard of Joe Morgenstern, because he won. And that, to me, is a weak and unadventurous standard.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

New comics 4/6

G.L.A. #1 (Dan Slott/Paul Pelletier, Marvel)
Picked this up because I enjoyed Slott's work on the first She-Hulk collection, and I like romps through obscure bits of Marvel continuity. This first issue has kind of an uneasy balance of humor and seriousness, but I liked it for the most part. I wonder at the tactic of killing off one of the team members each issue, since it seems that whatever small fanbase the characters have isn't going to be happy, but I bet that Slott has something fun and interesting in mind, so I'll see where it heads.

Y The Last Man #32 (Brian K. Vaughan/Goran Sudzuka, DC/Vertigo)
The new story arc sends Yorick and crew out on the sea, and it does feel like a new beginning getting the characters out of the U.S. I'm interested to see Vaughan's take on how the rest of the world has dealt with the plague, and of course figure out the latest mystery. Sudzuka's art is so similar to regular penciler Pia Guerra's that I barely even noticed the difference, which is nice.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Movies opening this week

Millions (Alex Etel, Lewis McGibbon, James Nesbitt, dir. Danny Boyle)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I expected to really like this movie and I just...didn't. I mean, I liked it okay, but it wasn't nearly as good as I had hoped from seeing the trailers and reading the glowing reviews. I think smart, complex kids films, especially live action ones, are one of the rarest commodities in cinema, so I was looking forward to this adding to that small canon. It doesn't quite get there, and I honestly wonder how well kids will appreciate it. Still, it gets points for trying, and Boyle's visual style is fascinating as usual. Opened limited Mar. 11; in Las Vegas this week

Off the Map (Joan Allen, Sam Elliott, Valentina de Angelis, dir. Campbell Scott)
This movie is so slow and low-key that it might as well be asleep. Actually, at times Scott's camera kind of aimlessly drifts across the scenery as if the cameraman did fall asleep. One of those films that mistakes the lack of dialogue for meaningful silence. The script, adapted from a play and boy does it feel like it, is way too mannered, pretentious and ponderous to produce anything other than a stagy, too-precious drama. There are only two things that save this from being a complete mess, and they are the actors and the landscape. Set in rural New Mexico and showcasing the natural beauty of the land, the film follows a sort of hippie family in the 1970s who live without electricity, running water or phone service. Allen is the best thing about nearly every movie she's in, and this is the second movie of hers in as many months that I haven't liked but have been unable to fault her for. She's just an amazing actress. Even de Angelis, who plays the completely unbelievable precocious kid, is great, and the annoying nature of her character is never the fault of her acting. I wish this cast and setting could get a better script and a director who could stay awake. Opened limited Mar. 11; in Las Vegas this week

Sahara (Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz, Steve Zahn, dir. Breck Eisner)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I have nothing to add about the film itself, but I think the dispute between the studio and Clive Cussler, the author upon whose novel the film was based, could be something interesting. There's not a lot of press on it, mainly because Cussler hasn't done any interviews, but I've read that not only does the film change details of the book's plot - which, let's be reasonable, is something that happens in nearly every adaptation - but it also excises the serious conservative and jingoistic side of Cussler's writing, which is something that's barely been talked about. I'm actually surprised conservative commentators haven't brought it up as some example of liberal Hollywood squashing other points of view - for all I know it's exaggerated anyway, since I haven't actually read the book. But I'd be interested in learning more (without, of course, actually reading the book). Wide release

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


Every comics fan, creator, critic and industry type has their own theory as to how to "save" comics and why the average person doesn't read them. I'm not going to get into that, but I want to point out something I found interesting: One of the most common factors to blame for the lack of interest in comics is continuity. Superhero comics are mired in years of continuity, shared universes are cumbersome because comics constantly reference other comics and previous issues. Marvel and DC both have tried continuity-lite or continuity-free comics to entice new readers.

Somehow (long story) I ended up with a free subscription to Lego magazine. Each issue comes with the latest issue of the Bionicle comic book, co-published with DC and featuring characters based on the popular Bionicle line of Lego toys. I got my first issue last week, Bionicle #22, and I thought I'd give it a read to see if it was any good. It is, after all, one of the few comic books that's actually very popular with kids. I found it totally incomprehensible. Why? It's mired in continuity. Even after reading the helpful recap of previous issues on the first page, I had almost no idea what was going on. There are numerous footnotes referring the reader to other Bionicle comics and, at one point, to the Bionicle straight-to-DVD movie. Footnotes are almost unheard-of in mainstream comics anymore, as they are considered alienating. But in this case, for the average Bionicle reader who is most likely a rabid Bionicle fan, the footnotes make the reader feel connected and knowledgeable. And for a new reader like me, clearly no one cares if I know what's going on or not.

Was the comic any good? I have no idea. I got only a vague sense of what was happening. All the characters' names are made up words that sound very similar, and the plot of this issue involved almost all of them transforming into slightly different characters with slightly different names. But clearly a legion of kids think this is a good comic, and the dense continuity isn't turning them off; I'd be willing to bet they love it. Something to ponder. Meanwhile, I'll continue getting free issues of this comic, and maybe eventually I'll figure out what the hell it's about.

Weekend viewing

Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)
I have this knee-jerk aversion to any movies about the Holocaust and/or World War II, and since I missed the chance to see this for free before it opened, I just figured I'd skip it or maybe catch it on video. But after hearing such raves from several people I know and reading the glowing reviews, I broke down and went to see it and I'm glad I did. This is an unbelievably detailed and comprehensive film, showing a perspective on the war that I think is rarely seen, that of the Germans and specifically of the Nazi leadership. The Allies are nothing more than an unseen presence for almost the entire film, and you can't help but sympathize with a number of the German characters even if you know they are at least partially responsible for horrible atrocities. Hirschbiegel emphasizes more than anything the humanity of these people, Hitler included, forcing the viewer to understand that all of the horrors of the war were perpetrated by human beings not much different from the average person, and that not all of them were completely and totally evil. Really only Hitler and Goebbels come off as completely amoral and inhuman, and even they aren't caricatures or monsters. At times the film is so thorough (it's two and a half hours long) that it feels tedious, and Hirschbiegel follows so many characters that it's hard to keep track of many of the minor ones. But overall it's a powerful film and one that offers a fresh perspective on a tired subject.

Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996)
I kind of go back and forth on whether Anderson is a genius or an annoyance. I found Punch-Drunk Love annoying, but I loved Magnolia and liked Boogie Nights (it was one of those movies that was an inevitable disappointment after so much hype). It's actually been several years since I saw an Anderson picture (since Punch-Drunk's theatrical release), so maybe all that time away refreshed me (and of course Anderson himself has nearly disappeared since then; apparently he is making a movie about the Teapot Dome scandal, of all things), but I thought this was absolutely wonderful. It's much more focused than the sprawl of Boogie Nights or Magnolia, essentially following only four characters, and it tells a more believable and emotionally involving story than Punch-Drunk did. The cast is phenomenal, which is to be expected from Anderson regulars John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall, but I was really surprised by Gwyneth Paltrow, who gives probably the best performance I've seen of hers, unaffected by movie-star excesses (she was a relative unknown at the time). Samuel L. Jackson does his standard badass thing, but it works, and the minimalist dialogue is poetic and pithy. Anderson's camera work is astounding, with these breathtaking long takes and artistic still life shots that open and close certain scenes. A really remarkable little film, and probably not the kind of thing he'll make anymore now that he's a certified Auteur.

Michael Moore Hates America (Michael Wilson, 2004)
I was skeptical of this, and my conservative editor at the Weekly loved it, but my reaction was somewhere in the middle. Not the hatchet job you think it might be; Wilson goes out of his way to be fair and honest, since that's exactly what he accuses Moore of not doing. His point is less specifically about Moore than about the shrillness and negativity of political debate, and Moore is just the most high-profile example of this (and, yes, Wilson is more of a right-leaning guy, although this is surprisingly not the main point of the film). Wilson doesn't hesitate to tear apart conservative nutjob David Horowitz just as much as Moore when Horowitz shows up claiming liberals want to assassinate him. Some of Wilson's specific complaints about Moore are overly nitpicky, and sometimes he uses Moore-esque tactics without apologizing for them, as he makes a point to do at other times. But for the most part his intentions are noble, trying to say that you shouldn't elide truth and fairness just to make a point, even if you believe your point is right. He finds a number of rational Moore supporters to talk to him in a calm and respectful manner, and points out that he has no problem with people who share Moore's beliefs or the concept of debating ideas. The saddest part of the film is the way that Moore comes off as exactly the kind of thing he's fought against, as Wilson repeatedly attempts to set up interviews, and Moore blows Wilson off just like Roger Smith did to him in Roger & Me, making glib comments rather than engaging Wilson in an actual exchange of ideas. Moore is clearly an egomaniac, as this film makes clear, but that doesn't make his political beliefs erroneous.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

New comics 3/30

Ocean #5 (Warren Ellis/Chris Sprouse, DC/Wildstorm)
Ellis makes up for the slowness of previous issues with a lot of action this time, most of which is interesting. The explanation of who the mysterious creatures under the ice are is something of a sci-fi cliche, but Ellis handles it well enough and creates enough excitement that I don't mind. As with last issue, the evil Doors manager gets another total stock Ellis line ("Kill everything you see."). I'm not all that taken with him as a villain but the menace of the creatures proves interesting enough.

Otherworld #1 (Phil Jimenez, DC/Vertigo)
I was really looking forward to this, but it was quite the disappointment. Jimenez introduces a horde of characters in this issue whom I could barely tell apart, and his magical mystical plot isn't that easy to follow, either. At its core, though, it's pretty basic: Some mystical land is in peril, and some sorcerors summon a bunch of college kids from our world to help. A simple premise, but one that could be taken in a number of interesting directions. So far Jimenez hasn't done that, although his hyper-detailed art is, as always, gorgeous, and I'm willing to give him one more issue to come up with a story worth telling, since this one was free from DC publicity anyway.

The Pulse #8 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Lark, Marvel)
I have pretty much lost all interest in this book, although its Secret War crossover is more interesting than this week's issue of Secret War (see below). Seriously, after the 28 wonderful issues of Alias, Bendis has given us a decent Green Goblin story that went on a little too long and this totally useless crossover that barely adds anything to the story with which it's crossing over. Plus the third artist in eight issues. If the next storyline isn't a dramatic improvement, I'm gone. On the upside, Lark's gritty art fits the tone of the book better than Brent Anderson's did, and, as I said, at least something actually happens vis a vis the whole Secret War mess.

Secret War #4 (Brian Michael Bendis/Gabriele Dell'Otto, Marvel)
Unlike this, which is basically just an issue-long fight scene with a bunch of generic villains. For this I waited who knows how many months and paid $3.99? Good lord. I liked this story when it started (what seems like a decade ago), but now it's just treading water and has already been overshadowed by Bendis's next big crossover, House of M. I don't expect it will have any interesting long-term ramifications in the Marvel universe, and now that we've discovered what it's all about (some Latverian chick funding science villains), I find it hard to care about the outcome.

Also out this week: Astonishing X-Men #9 and X-Men: Phoenix - Endsong #4, but thanks to a snafu at my local comics store, I did not pick them up. I can pretty much review them anyway, though: Astonishing X-Men remains far and away the best X-book Marvel is publishing, with Joss Whedon's sharp dialogue and spot-on characterization, and John Cassaday's beautiful art. Endsong is still surprisingly good for such a shameless cash-grab mini-series, and tells an important story that should have bumped one of the main books. How's that?

Friday, April 01, 2005

Movies opening this week

Melinda and Melinda (Radha Mitchell, Will Ferrell, Chloe Sevigny, Amanda Peet, dir. Woody Allen)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I love Woody Allen. I really do. I've seen more Woody Allen movies than movies by any other director except Alfred Hitchcock (although I realized recently to my dismay that this still means that I've seen fewer than half of Allen's movies). So I wanted to like this movie, and it's not horrible, but it's just not up to his standards. As a number of critics have noted, it's like Allen is retreating further and further into this idealized safe zone, still writing about the romantic travails of people in their late 20s and early 30s as he himself nears 70. It's just kind of sad at this point. Opened limited Mar. 18; in Las Vegas this week

Sin City (Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, dir. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This is the first movie I've seen this year that I could imagine ending up on my top ten list at the end of the year. I love the way Rodriguez has used technology to his advantage to successfully re-create Miller's world so faithfully. I don't agree with critics who have said the direct adaptation leaves the material stale or embalmed, as J. Hoberman put it in the Village Voice. I think Rodriguez and Miller have brought a comic book sensibility to movies in a way no one's done yet, and in doing so they've invigorated movie-making rather than hobbled it.

What's more interesting to me than the arguments about whether the adaptation is too faithful is the idea that there's a serious gender divide in the response to the movie. I like nothing less than reading reviews of movies I like that accuse people who like said movies of being stupid, or dupes, or prejudiced. But I do find it interesting that probably the three most prominent female film critics in America - Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, Ella Taylor in LA Weekly and Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly - did not like the film at all. Taylor in particular tears it apart not only on a cinematic level - which is more what Dargis and Schwarzbaum are talking about - but at a sociological level, and engages in my aforementioned least favorite tactic of accusing any fan of the film of being "an adult male aging ungracefully, or a pimply youth with a pimply youth’s fondness for comic books about hell on Earth." Even worse, she basically says that any woman who likes the film is anti-feminist and also probably a moron. "If you’re a woman of any age who gets off on this stuff, even with its feeble stabs at feminist role reversals, I throw up my hands," she says. Now, on the one hand this really bugs the shit out of me, because it's condescending and insulting and, in my opinion, wrong. But on the other hand, the one that likes and respects Taylor as a critic (to mix some metaphors), it makes me question my reaction to the film a little bit. The same sort of criticisms were lobbed at films like Sideways and Adaptation (in that case I myself did some of the lobbing) - that critics, who are by and large lonely, middle-aged white males, love these movies because they represent a sort of sad wish fulfillment. I am usually the first person (and, in the case of a film like The Upside of Anger, seemingly the only person) to point out what I perceive as misogyny in mainstream films, especially ones that expect viewers to think they are empowering to women. And it bothers me to think that I have somehow been hoodwinked by this film, that it's played to some sort of base male instinct that I convince myself I don't have, that its cool violence and hot women have blinded me to its deeper sociological meaning.

Ultimately I don't think that's true, and there are plenty of female critics who liked the film who can back me up (and male critics who didn't like it). MaryAnn Johanson, of the excellent website The Flick Filosopher, gives the film a glowing review and takes on the its supposed anti-feminism. "But it was only when I met the women of Old Town that I realized that it's only Marv who's clueless, not Miller," she says, approaching the idea that just because the characters are misogynists, it doesn't mean the movie is, too. Like any action film, this will probably have more male fans than female, but I think that's due more to closed-mindedness than any actual anti-female message. Just as I often find myself the only male appreciating a good romantic comedy or teen flick, women adventurous enough to actually see Sin City will likely end up enjoying it. Still, out of all the reviews I read, it was that Ella Taylor one that made me think most about the film, and that's probably a good thing. Wide release