Friday, March 31, 2006

Movies opening this week

Basic Instinct 2 (Sharon Stone, David Morrissey, Charlotte Rampling, David Thewlis, dir. Michael Caton-Jones)
I'm on vacation this week, which means I was under absolutely no obligation to go to this screening, and yet I went anyway out of some perverse desire to see what kind of awesome trainwreck it would be. Sadly, it was not awesome, just sort of tedious and boring, with not nearly enough sex and nudity to offset the inane plotting, clunky expository dialogue and bad acting. Even those elements could add up to campy fun, but aside from a few of Stone's lines, there wasn't even much to laugh at. Part of the problem is that while Stone is hamming it up like crazy, Morrissey is incredibly wooden and soporific, and she really needs someone as vibrant and slightly off-kilter as Michael Douglas to play against or all her vamping is worthless. Also, far be it from me to impugn the beauty of older women, but in her efforts to look "sexy" at 48, Stone just comes off as nasty. Her clearly doctored breasts look disturbingly unnatural, her face is excessively taut, and her eyebrows are so arched that they threaten to come off the top of her head. Poor Charlotte Rampling, who should fire whoever convinced her to appear in this movie, is a good decade older than Stone and looked ten times better (and more natural) in her nude scenes in Swimming Pool a few years ago.

There are actually a few sparks of intrigue in the film that hint that, in the hands of a more capable director (maybe the original's Paul Verhoeven or David Cronenberg, who was once attached to the sequel), it could have been something with a certain trashy, sexy charm, or even with something to say. But Caton-Jones is nothing more than a competent journeyman with an unimpressive resume, and he does nothing creative or remarkable with the material. The opening sequence, featuring Stone pleasuring herself with a half-comatose soccer hunk while driving 100 miles an hour on the streets of London, is perversely entertaining, and the subsequent interrogation, with David Thewlis sputtering like a madman, has at least half of the movie's best lines. But all of that occurs before Morrissey shows up on screen or the laborious plot kicks in, and those are probably the movie's two weakest elements. Wide release

Slither (Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, dir. James Gunn)
I think that studios have gotten the idea that critics hate all horror movies, and thus have decided to put a near-universal ban on screening any of them in advance. Some critics do hate horror movies, but I think the vast majority know a good one when they see it, as evidenced most recently by the mostly positive reviews for this film. It's too bad that, a week after something like Stay Alive, Slither may end up tarred with the same brush as such brain-dead, cash-in cheapies, since it's a great deal more clever, fun and even genuinely scary at times. Gunn, who wrote the surprisingly good 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, goes for as much humor as horror here, in tribute to the style of the legendary Troma Studios (whose founder, Lloyd Kaufman, has a cameo), and it works very well. Fillion and Banks are nimble and funny as the leads, and Gunn borrows from all the right people in his grab-bag horror fanboy aesthetic. He's got a George Romero sense for zombies and a David Cronenberg sense for sexualized horror, and of course a Troma sense for the good old-fashioned gross-out. Slither isn't as intelligent or unnerving as something like Wolf Creek, but it's undoubtedly a good time at the movies. Wide release

Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Mothusi Magano, dir. Gavin Hood)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Here's another one of those pious, annoying prestige movies that get Oscars (in this case for Best Foreign Language Film) for making people feel good about themselves and yet are cloying, condescending and false. Actually, this isn't a horrible movie, but what it represents and the way that people praise it unthinkingly kind of annoy me. Opened limited Feb. 24; in Las Vegas this week

Thursday, March 30, 2006

One Year Later

Since I'm on DC's mainstream press list thanks to reviewing a handful of comics in Las Vegas Weekly, I usually get copies of anything they think will have appeal beyond the comics niche market: a lot of Vertigo and Wildstorm non-superhero books, big events like Identity Crisis (they sent every issue) and Infinite Crisis (I've gotten issues 2, 3 and 5, which doesn't make the story any easier to follow), and sometimes first issues of new DC universe series. DC obviously sees this One Year Later stunt, with all of their in-continuity DCU books skipping ahead a year, as a huge deal, since they sent me nearly every OYL issue, although only one (Blue Beetle) is a new launch, and none are non-superhero titles. Although I really doubt any mainstream outlets are interested in a detailed analysis of this entire event, which is essentially geared toward re-energizing the hardcore fanboy faithful, I took it as a good opportunity to give the entire DCU superhero line a shot. I buy a good number of Vertigo and Wildstorm books, but haven't ever really been into DC's core superhero titles, except for a couple of Peter David books (Supergirl and Young Justice) and the brief run of The Monolith.

I got 18 of the 22 (according to my count) OYL books. They are:
Action Comics #837 (Geoff Johns & Kurt Busiek/Pete Woods)
Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis #40 (Kurt Busiek/Butch Guice)
Batman #651 (James Robinson/Don Kramer)
Birds of Prey #92 (Gail Simone/Paulo Siqueira)
Blood of the Demon #13 (John Byrne & Will Pfeifer/John Byrne)
Blue Beetle #1 (Keith Giffen & John Rogers/Cully Hamner)
Catwoman #53 (Will Pfeifer/David Lopez)
Detective Comics #817 (James Robinson/Leonard Kirk)
Firestorm #23 (Stuart Moore/Jamal Igle)
Green Arrow #60 (Judd Winick/Scott McDaniel)
Green Lantern #10 (Geoff Johns/Ivan Reis)
Hawkgirl #50 (Walter Simonson/Howard Chaykin)
JSA #83 (Paul Levitz/Rags Morales)
JSA Classified #10 (Stuart Moore/Paul Gulacy)
Nightwing #118 (Bruce Jones/Joe Dodd)
Outsiders #34 (Judd Winick/Matthew Clark)
Robin #148 (Adam Beechen/Karl Kerschl)
Superman #650 (Geoff Johns & Kurt Busiek/Pete Woods)

I didn't get Teen Titans or Supergirl (which I'm pretty sure are not out yet) or Supergirl & the Legion of Superheroes, or Manhunter, which ironically is the only one of these books that I have some independent interest in and would have looked forward to reading. I've got the first Manhunter trade that DC sent a while back, which I really ought to give a look.

I'm not going to review these books individually, but overall they do give a picture of the current DC universe, and maybe it's that I'm sort of moving past reading a ton of superhero comics, or maybe that I've been reading Marvel books since I was 12 and only a handful of DC books in that time, but none of these got me excited about DC's characters or what they're doing with their comics. These are, almost universally, straightforward, unadventurous, very traditional superhero comics. Now, that may be exactly what DC is going for: Again, the whole point of all these various events and new jumping-on points seems to have been to reinvigorate fanboy excitement, interest among people who have been reading about many of these characters for decades. In that sense, maybe it succeeds: Batman fights Poison Ivy, Clark Kent romances Lois Lane (although he's lost his powers), Hal Jordan is Green Lantern, etc. A lot of the changes that show up in these stories seem either superficial or destined to be short-lived. Obviously, at the end of Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek's 8-part story running through Action and Superman, Clark will get his powers back. Green Arrow will be mayor of Star City about as long as Lex Luthor was president of the U.S. And Selina Kyle will be back as Catwoman as soon as she loses her baby weight.

All of which is fine, to a point. Everyone knows that mainstream superhero comics (and this goes for Marvel, too) thrive on the illusion of change rather than actual change. But the problem is that for an event pitched on the idea that nothing will ever be the same, everything seems remarkably...the same. My biggest issue is that reading through these 18 comics gives me absolutely no idea of what earth-shattering events occurred in this allegedly incredibly important Infinite Crisis mini-series (granted, reading the random issues they've sent me hasn't illuminated that much, either). Not to mention the mini-series that led up to it, or the massive 52-issue weekly series we've got coming in May. A few mentions here and there, but otherwise nothing. I realize that these issues are supposed to provide clean starts for new readers, and as a new reader I appreciate that, but it makes the huge crossover events appear hugely inconsequential.

So the event itself is flawed at best. But what about the stories? I admit, a couple of them (Robin and JSA Classified) piqued my interest enough that I'd even consider buying the next issues, especially for Classified since the nature of the series means that it will be a self-contained story by that particular creative team and then I can stop reading after that. I am always wary of jumping on long-running company-owned superhero books (DC or Marvel) because I know that they will only get bogged down in crossovers and editorially-mandated changes and then end up changing creative teams. Since I dropped the main X-Men books, every single title I read monthly is one that I started reading with its first issue and is still written by its original writer (and in many cases drawn by its original artist). I like books on which the creative team seems to have a genuine investment, and I'm not one of those people who has an emotional attachment to certain characters such that I will follow them through any creative team no matter how crappy (at least not since I broke my X-Men habit).

Aside from a few intriguing mysteries - and Adam Beechen's murder mystery in Robin is the best, since it hinges on something that happens in the actual issue and not in the nebulous missing year - there isn't much to entice the reader back for another issue. Very few of the stories were incomprehensible to me as a new reader, although JSA and Blood of the Demon were pretty much impossible to follow as someone unfamiliar with the characters, and Birds of Prey and Firestorm clearly had a lot that went over my head. Some of them read like any random issue you could imagine, with little to do with a year missing since the previous issue. Some, especially the usually talented James Robinson's incredibly tired Batman stories, read like something that any superhero comics reader has already encountered a thousand times over. With the exception of Bruce Jones's atrocious Nightwing, nothing was particularly poorly written. But none of the writing excited me, either, gave me that sense of adventure and suspense that you want out of a good superhero comic.

The art was almost universally bland as well, which sort of surprised me since several of the artists (David Lopez, Leonard Kirk, Karl Kerschl) are people whose work I've enjoyed elsewhere. This is one area where I think there's a clear difference between DC and Marvel - you couldn't imagine someone like Skottie Young or Adrian Alphona drawing a mainstream DC book, at least not these days. Someone like Karl Kerschl especially has obviously toned down his quirks to bring his art more in line with a traditional superhero style. Only Howard Chaykin's work really stands out, and not in a good way from my perspective - it's blocky and all his faces look the same, like the characters are constantly grimacing. The worst part is that there is some really striking cover art on some of these books, from the likes of Brian Stelfreeze, Simone Bianchi, Terry Dodson and Daniel Acuna, but none of their more distinctive styles are reflected in the interiors. Even the artists I'd never heard of, like Joe Dodd and Paulo Siqueira, end up nearly interchangeable with the more familiar names.

Obviously this stuff is just not for me, and that's fine. But it does sort of disappoint me that DC is essentially putting forth safe, conventional storytelling as their mission for their primary line of books, and that all these endless crossovers have achieved the end result of returning to a storytelling standard that's nearly indistinguishable from anything that's been published in the last decade (well, except for Judd Winick's heavy-handed - yet timely - political whining). This is probably more a general dilemma of superhero comics than it is the fault of any of these particular books, and DC does publish other stuff with its primary characters (mini-series, non-continuity books, OGNs) that takes more risks. But reading these 18 issues in a row made me despair a little for the state of DC's superhero comics.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


This was going to be the next show I watched from Netflix, mainly on the recommendation of a fellow movie critic whose opinion I respect, but also because I had a general sense that it was one of those underrated cult shows (it lasted two seasons on the WB in 1999-2001) and I have a soft spot for teen melodramas anyway. So I really was primed and ready to like this show, and kept wanting it to be better than it was as I made my way through the first four episodes on the disc that Netflix sent. But it just wasn't, and even though I tried, I couldn't convince myself that it was worth making my way through the whole 22-episode first season just on faith that eventually I would see what other people clearly enjoyed.

To be fair, I did see some of it: There's an obvious camp element that becomes a little more pronounced even over the course of just the first four episodes, and Tammy Lynn Michaels and Leslie Grossman clearly have a good time hamming it up with their characters. But the rest of the characters are just so goddamn whiny and unlikeable, and in between the minimal campy amusement is all your boilerplate teen drama bullshit, which I do enjoy when it's done with a modicum of genuine emotion and some decent acting and characters that I can have a little investment in. But this is sort of sub-par Dawson's Creek rip-off stuff, at least in the initial episodes, and I just don't have the patience to sit through more of it for no reason. I almost never turn a movie off in the middle, no matter how much I hate it, but it seemed sort of excessive to watch 22 episodes of a TV show just so that I could finish what I started. If it had been as short as some of the other shows I've watched recently, I might have stuck it out. But I suppose I'll remain ignorant to whatever pleasures this show (allegedly) had to offer.

Monday, March 27, 2006

New comics 3/22

The American Way #2 (John Ridley/Georges Jeanty, DC/Wildstorm)
After giving the first issue the benefit of the doubt, I thought this issue just gave in to the all the problems I was hoping the series would avoid. The twist ending from last month turns out to be much less sinister than it appeared, and Ridley covers so much time in this issue that he's got no room for character development. There's way too much narration and not nearly enough illustrative action, and it's hard to care what happens to any of these people since even the main character is just an exposition-delivering cipher. Ridley doesn't seem to have much new to say about the turmoil of the 1960s, either, and since he's also not telling an exciting superhero story, I think I'm going to pass on seeing where things go next.

Nextwave #3 (Warren Ellis/Stuart Immonen, Marvel)
If possible, even weirder than the first two issues, with characters spouting non sequiturs presumably just because Ellis thinks they are funny, and Dirk Anger trying to kill himself with a giant inverted pistol. At the same time there is internally consistent character development and team dynamics, and it's all quite funny. The perfect antidote to endless, super-serious superhero crossovers.

Noble Causes #18 (Jay Faerber/Fran Bueno, Image)
Faerber pulls a nice switch on the expectations set up by all the promo copy promising a "devastating loss" for Race, which in light of recent events one would assume to be Liz's death. Instead, Race loses his powers, which is a more interesting twist, and the Blackthornes defeat the Nobles in a way that is perfect for this book - by turning the tide of public opinion against them. Another way that Faerber has used soap opera conventions to liven up his superhero stories. This also marks Bueno's last issue on art, and although he started out sort of shaky, he's really developed a distinct, appealing style, and while the preview art for next issue looks decent, I'll still be sad to see him go.

She-Hulk #6 (Dan Slott/Will Conrad, Marvel)
A fun little story pushing forth some subplots and making good use of Starfox, a character with whom I'm not especially familiar. Conrad's art is straightforward and somewhat generic, but serves the story better than Juan Bobillo's stylized work. What will really be exciting is when Paul Smith shows up as regular artist starting with issue 8.

X-Factor #5 (Peter David/Dennis Calero, Marvel)
The first real misstep in this series, with David doing a tired and fairly pointless riff on Misery for nearly the entire issue, not advancing any of the ongoing storylines and pushing most of the regular cast aside in favor of a lame, throwaway villain. Calero finally gets a whole issue to himself, and he does a decent enough job, but I still prefer Ryan Sook's clean, thick lines to Calero's more scratchy style.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

South Park

I sort of tapered off watching South Park toward the end of its last run of new episodes, as the show's quality has really eroded over the last few years. But thanks to the whole Isaac Hayes controversy, I tuned in to this week's season premiere, and while I found parts of it pretty funny, I think it serves as a good illustration of the show's problems. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are so obsessed with responding to controversial events and making topical statements that they often rush to get their opinions out there and sacrifice plot, character and (most importantly) humor to make jokes that are on top of the news. The show ends up less like a scripted narrative and more akin to a late night talk show monologue, with content that is instantly dated within a few months (or even weeks).

Articles about the show these days almost always mention Parker and Stone's ability to turn an entire episode around in something like six days, thanks to the computer technology they use and the fact that they are the only writers and essentially the only voice performers. While that kind of flexibility is no doubt creatively freeing, and is always depicted in the press as a positive thing for the show, I think it's become something of a crutch for them. Just because you can turn around an episode that quickly doesn't mean that you should, and certainly a lot of the episodes of the last few seasons (especially the topical ones) could have benefited from a little more than six days of creative effort. I am usually right in line with Parker and Stone's left-libertarian politics, but even when I am agreeing with everything they say I often find myself bored and annoyed because they simply have one point (and one joke about it) that they repeat over and over for 22 minutes. Invariably the best recent episodes have been the ones that have nothing to do with political issues.

Now maybe the Isaac Hayes situation is an exception, since it has such a direct impact on the show. It's hard to imagine that they wouldn't respond to it in some way, and they did manage to do something clever with the recycled sound clips of Hayes' voice. I admit I laughed a number of times. But the Scientology parody was less effective because they'd already done a more pointed Scientology parody (which was what set this all off in the first place). And it ended up sort of feeling like a chore, like, "This is going on and we have to respond to it so let's get it over with." And that's how so many of the political episodes feel to me: like Parker and Stone feel obligated now to comment on current events, so they do it whether it makes for a clever episode of the show or not. At one time, their political insights were refreshing, incisive and hilarious; I still think that the South Park movie is one of the best satires in recent cinema. But what happened with the movie, which is that they were praised as much for their political commentary as for their humor, seems to have gone to their heads, to the point where they now fancy themselves pre-eminent political satirists. Which, y'know, they really aren't. They're guys who make vulgar jokes about fourth graders, and they're damn good at it, and I wish they'd spend more of their time on that.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Movies opening this week

Inside Man (Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Chiwetel Ejiofor, dir. Spike Lee)
Lee delivers the most mainstream film of his career with this slick heist thriller that takes a clever but flawed script and turns it into a fascinating portrait of the melting pot of New York City. I usually hate movies where the camera can’t stop moving, but Lee uses fluid and kinetic camerawork to capture the tension and chaos of a bank robbery, as well as the resentments seething just under the surface of the interactions between people of various races. Along with the sadly underrated 25th Hour, this movie finds Lee becoming the most pointed chronicler of post-9/11 New York. Forget all the 9/11-inspired movies to come - what Lee has done in his two films is not directly respond to the event, but depict the way that life has changed (and the way it's stayed the same) as the backdrop to telling stories that are fascinating on their own.

The cast here is phenomenal – Foster finally proves herself worthy of the comeback she’s attempting – and the direction is assured and precise. The plot sort of falls apart in the last 20 minutes, when everything gets overexplained, only to make it more confusing. Even if the story is lacking, though, the rest of it is pitch-perfect. Wide release

Unknown White Male (documentary, dir. Rupert Murray)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I think this is one of the best movies of the year so far and an early contender for the best documentary, and I'm bothered by reviewers who seem to be giving it negative reviews based solely on the fact that they think it's a hoax. I don't see how you can simply assume - without concrete evidence - that the movie is fake, and then pan it based primarily on that. Now, I'm not saying that it's not possible that the movie is fabricated, but unless some hard proof is uncovered, it's really unfair to review a movie based on extraneous rumor and speculation rather than the actual content of the film. Of course it's more moving as a true story, but at the same time, as Manohla Dargis notes, even if it's fake it's still quite an affecting and accomplished bit of filmmaking. Opened limited Feb. 24; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, March 20, 2006

Weekend viewing

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003)
This was my first introduction to Tsai's work, and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a sometimes grueling experience to get through this film. At 81 minutes and maybe five or six lines of dialogue (the first of which shows up almost 45 minutes in), it definitely takes some getting used to, and some of the excruciatingly long takes (a minute and a half static shot on an empty movie theater? Sure, why not?) are maddening to sit through. But once you get accustomed to the odd pacing and the near-complete lack of plot, there's a sort of zen calm that comes over you, and I actually found myself quite entertained by some of the sequences. I didn't get the rapturous joy that some critics seem to have taken away from the film, but I did find a lot of beauty in its tribute to a dying sort of moviegoing experience, and I'd be willing to subject myself to another Tsai film (What Time is it There? seems to be his acknowledged masterpiece) to see if I could reap even greater rewards.

The Ref (Ted Demme, 1994)
Talk about two very different films. A critic friend of mine recommended this as one of his absolute favorite movies, and I suppose I should have known better than to take that recommendation, given his generally awful taste (a very nice guy, though). I like Denis Leary, and he's got Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey as his foils here, yet this is still a completely lame and predictable family comedy. In fact, it's odd that they let Leary say "fuck" every other word and go with an R rating, because otherwise this is like a slightly edgier version of Home Alone. It's heartwarming and awkward and only very rarely funny. Which I probably could have guessed from simply reading about it, but I am always open to the idea that easily dismissed movies are better than they're given credit for (I often champion certain movies like that). That's not the case here, though.

New comics 3/15

Generation M #5 (Paul Jenkins/Ramon Bachs, Marvel)
Like Jenkins' last mini-series, Revelations, this ends on a disappointing note. Jenkins solves the serial killer storyline almost as an afterthought, and we never find out anything about who the killer is or what motivated him, which is seriously unsatisfying. Instead we get more of Sally's sob story, and I've really gotten sick of her. Jenkins even has her barely paying attention to the stories of the ex-mutants because she's so absorbed in her own pity party. And the revelation with Archangel is just sloppy plotting that makes no sense given what happened in the last issue. This was a good premise that started well and went downhill, and it definitely gives me zero interest in following Sally Floyd to Jenkins' Civil War mini, Front Line (which I wasn't really planning on buying anyway).

Runaways #14 (Brian K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona, Marvel)
Vaughan packs a lot in this first part of a new arc, checking back in with Karolina (and it's nice to see he hasn't forgotten her), seeing what the team is up to and flashing back to the origins of the new Pride. He offers a nice twist on what little we thought we knew about them, and proves that he's not just using some standard "back from the dead" device here. I think this has the potential to be the second volume's best storyline yet.

Spike vs. Dracula #1 (Peter David/Joe Corroney, IDW)
I guess this is a mini-series, but this issue really reads like a simple done-in-one story, and I'm not sure where David is going with it next - I guess he is exploring the rivalry in various eras, but this was perfectly satisfying on its own and didn't really read as the first of a five-part story. As with the last Peter David Spike book from IDW, I'm not sure it's worth the high price, but the art on this was much better than on the Old Friends one-shot, and I like David's writing, so I will probably give him the benefit of the doubt and see where the rest of the series goes.

Also out this week: Black Harvest #4, but enough nothing happened in the first three issues that I decided not to pick up the second half of the series. I still might check out a trade on Josh Howard's Dead@17, since that's his most well-regarded work and it would give me a chance to see if I liked a whole story by him. But Black Harvest just ended up boring me.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Significant Others

I'm not sure if it was serendipity or careful planning that led to the DVD release of this show's entire run (a mere 12 episodes over two seasons) just a few months before two shows in the same style and created by members of the Significant Others creative team premiered on network TV. ABC's Sons & Daughters was created by and stars Fred Goss, who plays half of one of four couples on SO, and Fox's Free Ride was created by Robert Roy Thomas, the co-creator of SO; both are half-hour sitcoms in SO's semi-improvised style. Anyone who likes either of those shows can clearly see their roots (as well as some of their co-stars) in this short-lived and little-watched show that aired on Bravo in 2004.

The DVD set showed up in the mail at work and looked mildly amusing, so I took it home and ended up watching all 12 episodes much in the manner that I watched the first season of Scrubs: They were pleasant and sometimes mildly amusing, and a better way to pass 22 minutes than randomly flipping through channels. The show follows four couples (although only three appear in each episode) as they deal with married life and attend couples' therapy. The lives of the central couples never overlap, so what you get is essentially four different shows united by a common theme and style. Thomas makes good use of his obviously small basic-cable budget, shooting in a handful of locations and anchoring the show around the therapy sessions, in which the couples talk directly to the camera as if the audience is the therapist.

Thanks to its improvisational structure, Significant Others is often unpredictably weird and funny, but it's just as often rambling and unfocused. Both Thomas and Goss seem to have learned some lessons from this show, because their subsequent efforts are more tightly plotted and have a better focus (I'm sure they have bigger budgets, too, being on network TV). I watched two episodes of Free Ride and three of Sons & Daughters on review screeners and found them relatively amusing but not worth carving out any of my time for. Still, if two shows make a trend, then this may be the next big effort to reinvent the sitcom. So far the ratings for Goss and Thomas's new shows have been less than impressive, but if they (or their style) take off, then Significant Others may end up being viewed as a groundbreaking show. I think it's more likely that it'll just be a way that I killed some time for a few hours.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Movies opening this week

Manderlay (Bryce Dallas Howard, Danny Glover, Isaach de Bankolé, dir. Lars von Trier)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I found a lot of things about Dogville interesting, and in general I appreciate von Trier's films because he's a misanthropic pessimist, just like me. But Dogville had two things going for it that this movie doesn't have: an excellent anchoring performance by Nicole Kidman, and a universal condemnation of damn near all human behavior. Manderlay is more specific and more direct, and its particularly USA-focused message reveals all of von Trier's logical flaws and biases. Plus Bryce Dallas Howard, as much as she's a promising young actress, just doesn't have the presence to pull off the role of Grace. Von Trier is stepping back from the USA trilogy and doing a comedy next - I'm curious to see how that goes. Opened limited Jan. 27; in Las Vegas this week

V for Vendetta (Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, John Hurt, dir. James McTeigue)
Although it smooths out some of the edges of the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (which I re-read literally an hour before seeing the movie), this is still a very bold, politically risky film, with a terrorist as its central character. The Wachowski brothers' script sometimes reduces the novel's pro-anarchy, pro-violence slant to a more simplistic good vs. evil dichotomy, but a remarkable number of sequences are taken verbatim from Moore's words. The story of the terrorist V and his sometimes reluctant protege Evey (Portman) fighting against the fascist government of a future Britain is updated to give it resonance to the current political climate, and McTeigue (an assistant on the Matrix films) shoots with a minimum of distracting flashiness. It's not full of bullet-time and kung fu, although there is a smattering of that. It's much more about some fairly radical ideas, even if the ending especially deviates from the source material to offer a little more hope and a little less endorsement of outright anarchy. If all you care about is direct translation of the comic, panel-for-panel, Sin City-style, then you're bound to be let down (and agree with Moore). But if you can forgive some of the simplification and appreciate the way that McTeigue and the Wachowskis capture much of the spirit of the story (as well as some of its most powerful scenes), this is a remarkably rewarding film. Wide release

Monday, March 13, 2006

Weekend viewing

The King of Marvin Gardens (Bob Rafelson, 1972)
About a month and a half ago some friends and I started an informal film-watching group to meet every two weeks and be moderated by Tony Macklin, a film historian, critic and professor who taught at the University of Dayton for 38 years. (You can read more about Macklin in my profile of him here.) This was our third installment, one of five films that Rafelson's made with Jack Nicholson. Like the other Rafelson/Nicholson collaboration I've seen, Five Easy Pieces, this was a bit elliptical and elusive but a rich character study and a visual marvel. Some of the shots are just amazing pieces of composition and visual storytelling that give you as much about the characters as the acting does. Nicholson is remarkably quiet and restrained, and Ellen Burstyn is wonderful. At times I thought it was a little too obtuse for its own good, but overall a really interesting film (followed by some good discussion as well).

What's Up, Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972)
I think I've learned something after watching this movie: I just don't like screwball comedies. This didn't bother me quite as much as His Girl Friday did, but it had many of the same annoying qualities. I simply could not get over the overwhelming arrogance and insensitivity of Barbra Streisand's character, and that wasn't because of her acting. I really felt sorry for Ryan O'Neal's nebbishy musicologist, who just wanted to present his findings about prehistoric instrumentation and kept getting sidetracked by this crazy girl getting him into trouble. Of course his fiancee is humorless cold fish (although Madeline Kahn is brilliant as always in the role) and he eventually falls in love with Streisand despite the fact that she more deserves a punch in the overdeveloped nose. I will say that this movie featured one of cinema's more inventive car chase sequences and a few moments that made me laugh, but mostly I found it too mind-numbingly stupid to enjoy.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

New comics 3/8

American Virgin #1 (Steven T. Seagle/Becky Cloonan, DC/Vertigo)
Like all of Vertigo's other recent launches, of which this is the last, this book lacks a clear handle on what it's about. Seagle presents an intriguing protagonist, a God-fearing virginity advocate who seems genuinely dedicated to his cause and honestly selfless (if slightly flawed). All of the solicitations promise to plunge our hero into a world of sexual depravity, but what appears to be his first dip in this issue turns out to be a bit of misdirection. So I still have no idea if Seagle means for the reader to admire Adam for his convictions, or if he plans to show that those convictions are hollow. Also, y'know, what the plot is. This is an ongoing series, like those other launches, so I can give it time to get to the point, but the hallmark of many of Vertigo's other iconic, long-running series (Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Fables, Y) has been an immediate hook and a fascinating first issue. None of these have had that, so far.

Cable & Deadpool #26 (Fabian Nicieza/Lan Medina, Marvel)
This is a prelude to the Apocalypse storyline already running in Peter Milligan's X-Men, which makes it seem sort of redundant. I'm not reading X-Men anymore, though, so this is all new to me, and thus I don't have any problems with it. Well, no problems other than the obvious, which is that Apocalypse has been done to death (literally), and I wonder that any story about him can offer anything new. To Nicieza's credit, he does appear to offer a new angle on the character, and specifically his neverending battle with Cable, on the last page, but since the X-Men storyline is already running with Apocalypse as the villain, I can't imagine anything that happens here will be of much consequence. It's a perfectly decent read, but it still feels like a company-mandated crossover that's just marking time until the book can get back to its main plots.

Down #4 (Warren Ellis/Cully Hamner, Image/Top Cow)
The Tony Harris cover for this issue has a signature dated 2001, and that pretty much indicates what's inside. This reads like something Ellis dashed off years ago and unearthed only because of contractual obligations. Like his raft of mini-series from that period, this tells a fairly slight story that just kind of limps to a conclusion, and while it had a few exciting moments along the way, overall it was pretty forgettable, especially in light of the stellar work Ellis is doing on new longform series Fell, Nextwave and Desolation Jones.

The Exterminators #3 (Simon Oliver/Tony Moore, DC/Vertigo)
Here we see what could end up happening to American Virgin by issue three. I still have no idea what this book is about or how I'm supposed to feel about the main characters, and even though I really liked the first issue, the lack of plot or direction has started to bore me. Even the dialogue seems less sharp. After last issue's shocking ending, this feels like treading water, and if something doesn't start to happen in the next issue, I may have to drop this like I did Loveless, Testament and DMZ. I think Vertigo is one of the most interesting publishers in the business, so it's sad to me that they could launch five new ongoing series without one of them being especially compelling.

Fables #47 (Bill Willingham/Jim Fern, DC/Vertigo)
Willingham turns what seemed like an inconsequential side story into an important element of the ongoing narrative, and adds more serious weight to the romance of Rodney and June in the process. Their love takes on a tragic feel with serious consequences, and I imagine we'll be seeing them pop up again before too long. It just goes to show how this book is always surprising me, even when I think I've got it all figured out.

Fell #4 (Warren Ellis/Ben Templesmith, Image)
It's been a while since issue three came out, so it was a real treat to see this on the shelf this week; one of those things you don't realize how much you missed until it's gone. Ellis mixes things up a little in this issue by not letting Fell solve the mystery, emphasizing the frustrating nature of fighting crime in Snowtown and also giving us a slight glimpse into Fell's past. We see the protagonist's dark side as he gets angry and loses control for the first time. It's still a remarkably dense done-in-one story, but it also hints at some interesting long-term character development.

Powers #17 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Avon Oeming, Marvel/Icon)
It feels like this arc has been going on for 25 issues with no end in sight. There isn't even really a mystery to be solved anymore - no attention is paid to figuring out who killed the Millennium Guard guy in this issue. Instead we get Walker exploring his new powers and Pilgrim giving in to the dark side of hers, which does make for an interesting contrast, and more of the annoying comedy club asides, whose purpose I've yet to ascertain. I really hope that Bendis knows where he's going with all this, because it's been dragging for a while now, and getting way too far afield from the premise that made this series interesting in the first place.

The Pulse #14 (Brian Michael Bendis/Michael Gaydos, Marvel)
This is a nice send-off for Jessica Jones, who I think is probably Bendis's greatest creation and one of the best new Marvel characters of the last decade. Although this book was radically hit-and-miss, and never really found its voice, the last few issues (with Gaydos back on art) have recaptured some of the magic of Alias. This is a quiet story that gives some nice insight into both Jessica's personality and her relationship with Luke Cage, and ends the series on an optimistic note, a good counterpoint to the dark final storyline of Alias. Bendis claims in his farewell to have big upcoming plans for Jessica, and I hope they won't just be some appearances in New Avengers, because I'd like her to show up in a book I actually want to read.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Movies opening this week

The Hills Have Eyes (Aaron Stanford, Emilie de Ravin, Dan Byrd, Kathleen Quinlan, dir. Alexandre Aja)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Although I've learned not to put any stock in these remakes of 1970s horror flicks, the few positive reviews I read before seeing this film, combined with the promise that Aja showed with High Tension and the blessing of Wes Craven, misled me to have slightly heightened expectations for it. Although it's maybe more ambitious than the average quickie remake, it's still not very good, and Aja doesn't add anything worthwhile to Craven's original formula. I still think he's got some promise as a genre director, though, but I've yet to be convinced that anything positive can come of these endless remakes, even if the people involved are talented. Wide release

The Libertine (Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton, John Malkovich, dir. Laurence Dunmore)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I saw this movie so long ago that I considered watching it again just to write the review. In the end I didn't bother, and this isn't exactly a film to waste that much time on anyway. If it weren't for Johnny Depp, I have a feeling this would have gone straight to video. The Weinstein Company has had it on the shelf for like two years as it is (since back when the Weinsteins were at Miramax), and when it got pulled from January release I really thought it would just disappear. I guess enough people will see anything Depp does to make it worth releasing, but I still bet it will be out of theaters in a month and on DVD by the beginning of summer. Wide release

Monday, March 06, 2006

New comics 3/1

Batman: Secrets #1 (Sam Kieth, DC)
I really like a lot of Sam Kieth's work, but his last few series have not done that much for me. This is a follow-up of sorts to his DC mini-series Scratch, which had a Batman cameo but was mainly about a kid who turned into a werewolf. In this series, Batman is front and center, but I'm amazed at Kieth's ability to turn Bruce Wayne into one of his typical protagonists, with a weird childhood secret that leads to present-day neuroses. I would imagine that hardcore Batman fans will find this a little too out of character to enjoy, but approaching it as a Kieth fan it has promise. At the same time, it does seem like he's running out of new ways to explore his same old themes.

Daughters of the Dragon #2 (Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray/Khari Evans, Marvel)
I still like this series more in theory than in practice, and I'm not sure it's worth bothering to pick up the rest of the issues. Misty and Colleen fight some more bad guys in this issue, they get a nebbishy assistant who is mildly amusing, and I guess the central mystery advances, although I had to skim the issue again just now to even remember any of that. Come to think of it, given how little of an impression this issue made on me, I think it's probably a waste of money to read the rest of the series.

Ex Machina #18 (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
I like the way that Vaughan is really engaging with current political issues in this arc and altering them to work with his premise, something that he started with his 9/11 revelation in the first issue. In that way this book is almost like an alternate history sci-fi novel, looking at what would happen if we had a superhero mayor in New York City who lessened the blow of 9/11 and was around when Bush was getting ready to invade Iraq. Vaughan also shows his willingness to take risks by seriously injuring one of the most likable main characters, who I hope will make a recovery soon.

Fallen Angel #3 (Peter David/J.K. Woodward, IDW)
I'm surprised at how satisfying I'm finding the Angel's origin story, considering that things like this shrouded in mystery so long tend to be anticlimactic when finally revealed. But this really does add layers to the character, and combined with the return of her son shows how tragic and lost she really is. In the first series, Lee was a badass in command of everything, and now David is showing her as a washed-up drunk who can barely get it together to throw a punch when the situation calls for it. In many ways this has become an entirely different book, and the radical change in art styles emphasizes that. I do wonder a little if David is writing himself into a corner, but I think it's more likely that he's setting things up for an exciting new status quo at the end of this arc.

I Heart Marvel: Masked Intentions (Fabian Nicieza/Paco Medina & Mike Norton, Marvel)
This was the Nicieza special in this series that I was actually excited about and forgot was coming when I picked up his lame supervillain issue last week. Truthfully, this is about as inconsequential as the supervillain one, but it's got much better art and the added advantage of Nicieza writing the New Warriors, characters he clearly loves and shepherded for many years in their first series. There are two short stories in here, the first a cute little romance between Speedball (who is apparently about to get offed in Marvel's upcoming Civil War mega-crossover) and the GLA's Squirrel Girl, and the second a story that surprisingly breaks up one of the Marvel universe's longstanding couples, Justice and Firestar. Both show Nicieza's flair for character-driven storytelling and strong uses of continuity (especially in the first story, which picks right up from Dan Slott's GLA series and Zeb Wells' recent Warriors mini). Mostly, they make me wish there was a market for a Nicieza-written Warriors ongoing, rather than what looks to be a slaughter of at least some of the team coming up in Civil War.

Nextwave #2 (Warren Ellis/Stuart Immonen, Marvel)
I think the best accomplishment of this issue is that not only is it just as funny as the last issue, but I also actually found Fin Fang Foom's defeat scene (I won't call it a death, since he's too much of a Marvel icon for that) fairly sad and poignant. My only complaint is that the cover promised Elsa Bloodstone battling broccoli men, which did not happen.

X-Factor #4 (Peter David/Ryan Sook & Dennis Calero, Marvel)
I believe that this is Sook's last issue, and the editors are finally aware of this, so at least the artists switch mid-issue, rather than alternating pages, and the whole thing reads much more smoothly. This wraps up the first arc in a sort of anticlimactic fashion, leaving a few plot threads hanging. Knowing David, that probably just means that he's engaging in some long-term planning, which is good, but other than the resolution of the story of the murdered girl in the hotel room, this issue left me a little underwhelmed.

Y the Last Man #43 (Brian K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra, DC/Vertigo)
It seems like it's been forever since we've had a multi-part story arc in this book, so I was glad to get back to a plot with some forward momentum. Since Vaughan announced that the series will be ending with issue 60, it definitely feels like things are building to a climax, with long-running subplots coming to a boil. It was nice, too, just to have the main characters back and interacting with each other in this issue. Vaughan has built up a really strong cast who feel like old friends at this point, and I was glad for the opportunity to visit with them again.


Fuck you, Crash. Really, that's all I have the energy to say.

Oh, except for: Paul Haggis is a Scientologist. Just when I thought I couldn't hate him any more...

Sunday, March 05, 2006

On hating Crash

I was going to write a post about how much I hate Crash and how terrible it would be for it to win anything at the Oscars, and how appalling it is that it's hoodwinked so many people into thinking it's not only a good movie, but also a Very Important one, and how my hatred for the film only grows the more I hear about it. But I can't imagine that I could possibly do a better job than Matt Zoller Seitz did at articulating what's so heinous about this film. And Defamer has been making a habit of deriding it at every possible chance for months now. (My original review seems sort of mild in light of how much this film has come to bother me.) Karina Longworth also does a good job of explaining how such a terrible film might have just the right formula to convince the out of touch Academy members that it deserves to be rewarded as the best picture of the year. The buzz has been building for a while now on movie websites and blogs about the potential Crash upset, and while I do still believe that Brokeback Mountain will win (and I'll be picking it in my Oscar pool), no less a prominent and connected personage than the New York Times' Oscar blogger David Carr has named it his pick for Best Picture.

And so what? As I and most other critics and cinephiles say over and over like a mantra, the Oscars are worthless. Right? A regular reader recently pointed out to me a list of lame movies that have won Best Picture over the years. Obviously the Academy rarely rewards the actual "best" movies of the year. But I can't think of another Best Picture winner (granted I've seen far from all of them) that I felt such visceral hatred for, one that I thought was not only a mediocre or even bad film, but an offensive one. It would really genuinely sadden me to think that this one movie, out of the hundreds that were released in 2005, was picked by the most high-profile organization as the best of the year.

But, despite the outcry in the film blogosphere, I'm still in the minority on this. Rotten Tomatoes lists the reviews as 77% positive. Roger Ebert thinks the film is in the same league as Dickens. And my mail on the subject has been fairly evenly divided between people thanking me for the oasis of my negative opinion in the desert of praise for the film and, well, people like this guy:

Needless to say you are the most spectacular turd brained douche-bag on the face of the earth. I just watched CRASH and it was one of the most moving film experiences of my life. That you gave this film a bad review only goes to show that you are to film criticism what Adolph Hitler was to humanitarianism. That is to say infinitely lacking.
Maybe he'll end up happy come Oscar time. I'm not sure what that would mean for the state of movies, though.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Movies opening this week

Night Watch (Konstantin Khabensky, Dmitri Martynov, Galina Tyunina, dir. Timur Bekmambetov)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Despite some critics' efforts to look for a revealing subtext about the changes in Russia since the fall of communism, this is really just a dumb action movie in the vein of American dumb action movies, and thus it's already got a huge cult following. Oh well. Opened limited Feb. 17; in Las Vegas this week