Friday, June 30, 2006

Movies opening this week

The Devil Wears Prada (Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, dir. David Frankel)
You know, I was really hoping to like this movie. I'm a big fan of movies that can be light and breezy yet smart about subject matter generally considered "girly" and insubstantial by serious filmgoers. Stuff like Clueless, Legally Blonde and Bring It On (which is a movie I realize I bring up like once a month) is fun and entertaining but gives its apparently superficial characters credit for being real people with genuine emotions and passions, and doesn't condescend to them for cheap laughs. In other words, they turn out not to be superficial after all. My main problem with The Devil Wears Prada is that it tries to have it both ways. On one hand, Anne Hathaway's fashion-phobic young assistant Andy embraces the haughty world of couture and comes to appreciate its value (there are some really interesting speeches about the artistry and care that go into fashion design), and I am all for a movie that wants to take a traditionally derided field and show its hidden depths and underappreciated value.

On the other hand, the ultimate moral seems to be that such a world is inherently superficial and cruel, and it's only when Andy rejects the fashion world and goes to work at an old-fashioned newspaper that she's truly happy and morally sound. Which, to me, was a huge cop-out. Andy seems to come to genuinely value her insights about fashion and her ambitions about her career, but because one writer she idolizes turns out to be a cad and her boss has been unable to sustain a healthy romantic relationship, she fears losing her boyfriend (who, really, should give her more leeway to pursue her dreams) and her pretentious art-gallery snob best girlfriend, so she retreats to the kind of earnest, boring journalism she did in college. In a way this is a very anti-feminist film: The overriding message seems to be something like "Women, go after your dreams, but only if it doesn't upset your boyfriend too much or screw with his schedule." What a bunch of infuriating bullshit.

So I'm suprised that the reviews have been so positive and, moreover, so la-dee-dah glib about such a morally confused and confusing film. Never mind that it's blandly directed and the plot has virtually no conflict or dramatic tension. (Walter Chaw is one of the few who gets it.) Everyone focuses on Streep's performance like it's some sort of revelation, but did they not see her in The Manchurian Candidate remake? Sure, she does ice-queen very well, but, aside from one shoehorned-in scene, it's a one-note performance, even if she plays that note well. Don't be fooled by reviews. This is a bad, bad movie. Wide release

Naked in Ashes (documentary, dir. Paula Fouce)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Sometimes I wonder how movies like this even make it to theaters here. This is the kind of thing you might flip past on some high-numbered cable channel, watch for a few minutes and then flip off. There is absolutely no reason to see it in a movie theater. With all the really interesting indie and foreign films that never make it to Vegas theaters, it's sort of frustrating that something as useless as this gets to play on a big screen, even if only for a week. Opened limited Oct. 21; in Las Vegas this week

Superman Returns (Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, dir. Bryan Singer)
I meant to post about this earlier in the week, but other, more pressing work got in the way, and at this point much of what I might have said is redundant. This is one of those movies about which I am rapidly approaching critical fatigue, since so many people have been talking about it for so long. I will say that I found it immensely entertaining while I was watching it (which occurred after one of those awful movie theater horror stories that makes people stay home and watch DVDs - sound totally screwed up, the movie stopped after 45 minutes and restarted in another theater with properly working speakers), but started feeling less charitable as I thought about it more. Ultimately, I feel the same way about this movie as I did about King Kong - I had fun, sure, but I left wondering, "So what? Why did they spend $200 million to make this movie?" Maybe part of it is that I've always found Superman the character deathly boring, and I really think after all this time it's unlikely that anyone can tell any kind of new story about Superman. Not that Singer tries to do that - he's so enamored of the Richard Donner Superman movies (as I talked about here) that he pulls even some of their more ill-advised elements (Luthor's obsession with real estate, for one) into his movie. Like King Kong, this is a movie hampered by being overly reverent to a formative movie in the director's development. Even though some of the reports of the drastic changes made to the character in the many earlier incarnations of this movie that never made it to the screen are ridiculous and bordering on comic book blasphemy, I almost would have preferred to see them over this, because at least it would have been something new. Wide release

Sunday, June 25, 2006

New comics 6/21

Astonishing X-Men #15 (Joss Whedon/John Cassaday, Marvel)
I'm glad to see that Whedon is hinting that Emma hasn't gone completely evil, and I remain hopeful that this storyline will enrich rather than regress her character. It was a little hard to swallow that the Hellfire Club so easily and quickly dispatched the rest of the team in this issue, and Kitty was the only one able to fight back, but Whedon clearly loves Kitty and this is going to be her chance to shine, so I guess that's okay. Paul O'Brien points out that this is very similar to some of the stuff that Chris Claremont did in the '80s, which I don't remember clearly enough to comment on, but if anything this to me seems much in the spirit of Grant Morrison's stuff, with the team in shambles at the hands of Cassandra Nova, who plays on all of their innermost weaknesses.

Casanova #1 (Matt Fraction/Gabriel Ba, Image)
I don't think I've read any of Fraction's work before, but any time I've seen interviews with him, he always comes off as a desperate Warren Ellis wannabe, and that's exactly how this book reads; it's even done in the same format as Ellis' Fell, with 16 story pages for only $1.99 (although this debut issue has more story pages for the same price, which is nice). Not that emulating Ellis is necessarily bad - he's a great writer - but some of what Fraction does here comes off as too frantic and forced, and while Fell elegantly packs a satisfying story into its page count, this issue, even with more pages, feels way too dense and cluttered, with far too much happening too quickly. I'm still not quite sure what the final result is at the end of the issue, and after a while I sort of stopped caring about the plot. But there was some fun dialogue and cool characters, and I like Ba's pop art-influenced style, so I'll pick up another issue to see if it makes any more sense (it is, after all, pretty cheap).

Ex Machina #21 (Brian K. Vaughan/Tony Harris, DC/Wildstorm)
Vaughan starts the new arc off with a bang, and even though I'm not quite sure how the decriminalization of pot relates to a women immolating herself and a fake fireman invading an apartment, there's a lot of tension and suspense in this issue, and a great jarring last page. I was worried at first that the character of January, Journal's sister, was just a carbon copy to replace a killed cast member, but clearly she's got something different up her sleeve. There's a lot going on in this issue, all of it very intriguing.

Fallen Angel #6 (Peter David/J.K. Woodward, IDW)
Woodward uses a normal pencil-and-ink style in this issue, although he still does the coloring himself, and it's a little more accessible than his painted style; at least every character doesn't look like they're glowing. We're spending more time in the past here - at least the last arc told a contemporary story while also recounting the Angel's origin, but now we're in pure flashback mode, seeing what happened to Lee after she fell to earth. It's an interesting enough story, and shows her ruthlessness mixed with naivete before she came to Bete Noire, but I'm glad it's only a two-issue diversion.

My Inner Bimbo #1 (Sam Kieth, Oni)
This actually came out a few weeks ago, but my local store just got it this week. Although it's a sort of sequel to Ojo, the Oni series that Kieth did last year, it's only very tenuously related, and so far it's starting out more strongly. Once again, Kieth's got a strange creature (in this case the titular "bimbo") as a manifestation of his main character's subconscious, but at least that main character isn't an insecure young girl for once; it's an insecure 60-year-old man, who's got entirely new and interesting hang-ups. There's a ton of weird ideas in this book, and it's really dense reading (lots and lots of captions and speech bubbles), but not too tough to follow. The relationship between Lo and his wife is fascinating, and as always with Kieth's best work, the metaphysical stuff ties closely in to the real emotional stuff. Also, between this and Batman: Secrets, Kieth is turning in some of his best art in years. If only Oni could afford a proofreader (this issue is riddled with typos and grammatical errors).

Noble Causes #21 (Jay Faerber/Jon Bosco, Image)
Faerber has so many balls in the air at this point that it's a little tough to keep track of them, and inevitably some are going to get lost in the shuffle. The Rusty-Rae smackdown from last issue is completely ignored, and I have no idea how long it's been since the Celeste-Dawn relationship was addressed (or since we've seen Celeste for more than a panel or two). We do get some follow-up on Slate Blackthorne's continued efforts to reform, and a return to some stuff we haven't seen in a while (Detective O'Mega, Frost's potential villainy), but there are so many subplots going on that it'd be nice to see one or two of them resolved some time soon. Bosco's art continues to be a little awkward in places (especially his facial expressions), but I think he'll probably grow into the book as Fran Bueno did.

Shadowpact #2 (Bill Willingham, DC)
I wanted to give this book a chance because I like Willingham's work on Fables so much, but after two issues it's just not grabbing me at all. It's not even the continuity from Infinite Crisis that's bugging me, although I do feel like I have no idea who these characters are beyond really basic elements. The story is just uninteresting and completely nondescript, and compared with the way Fables grabbed me immediately, a real disappointment. I like Willingham, but I don't have enough faith in this book to wait for it to become interesting.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Movies opening this week

Click (Adam Sandler, Kate Beckinsale, Christopher Walken, David Hasselhoff, dir. Frank Coraci)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I remember when I went to the Christopher Walken presentation at CineVegas last year, Walken said that he'd jump at any chance to show off his dancing skills in a movie, and one of the producers of Click must have been paying attention, because Walken indeed gets to do a brief little soft shoe in one of the scenes of this film, and he looks like he's having a great time just going off and doing his own thing in the middle of a lame Adam Sandler movie. Not even David Hasselhoff does anything else amusing here, so Walken's all the film has going for it. Wide release

Monday, June 19, 2006

New comics 6/14

American Virgin #4 (Steven T. Seagle/Becky Cloonan, DC/Vertigo)
The first story arc wraps up, and I still have no idea where Seagle is going with this, but it's pretty exciting. He puts his protagonist through hell but lets him retain his religious faith, and I hope the book continues to explore how he keeps that faith in the face of trials and tribulations rather than turning him into an ex-Christian with an ax to grind. A well-rounded, interesting and sympathetic devout character is so rare to find in almost any medium, so it's refreshing.

Cable & Deadpool #29 (Fabian Nicieza/Ron Lim, Marvel)
This makes three artists in the last three issues, which is a bit annoying, although Lim is always a reliable fill-in and does a serviceable if unremarkable job here. Nicieza surprisingly ends this story arc not with a return to the status quo, but with Cable becoming essentially the benevolent dictator of a small nation, a wrinkle that should lead to some interesting stories once they get the obligatory Civil War crossover out of the way in the next few issues.

Ex Machina Special #2 (Brian K. Vaughan/Chris Sprouse, DC/Wildstorm)
This turned out to be one of the best Ex Machina stories Vaughan's written, easily as strong as anything in the regular book. The animal-based villain is supremely creepy, and I was a little disappointed to see him blown up at the end so that he didn't have the potential of returning. This was probably the most superhero-esque story this book has ever done, and very light on the politics, which might disappoint some people, but it was far from a conventional superhero tale. Vaughan's really a master of suspense, and he shows off those skills admirably here.

Fables #50 (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham, DC/Vertigo)
Bigby and Snow finally return to the center of attention in this issue, but I fear that their fairy-tale ending, while appropriate for characters from fairy tales, may mean that they're now fading into the background for good. It's interesting that after spending five or six issues chronicling Boy Blue's mission to the Homelands in great detail, Willingham dispatches a similar mission for Bigby in one over-sized issue. It does feel a little rushed at times, like he's anxious to tie up loose ends and throw the fans of these characters a bone before moving on to new things, but I do think that Willingham has genuine affection for Snow and Bigby, and I hope we'll see them again sooner than later.

Marvel Westerns: The Two-Gun Kid (Dan Slott/Eduardo Barreto, Marvel)
I'm not really that excited about the whole Marvel Westerns event, but I bought this because the main story is basically an extra issue of She-Hulk, with a framing story of her and Two-Gun Kid leading to a flashback for the Kid set in the Old West. The flashback story is amusing and forgettable, but the framing sequence contains some major developments for She-Hulk, which seems like sort of a cheat for regular readers but doesn't really bother me any more than if they just published an actual extra issue. There are two back-ups, also: A lame joke story by Keith Giffen in his "bwah-ha-ha" mode that so many love but I can't stand (with admittedly lovely art by Robert Loren Fleming & Mike Allred), and a reprinted Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Rawhide Kid story (why not a Two-Gun Kid reprint? Beats me) that is just as ridiculous (living totem pole!) as you'd expect.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Movies opening this week

It's a day late, because with CineVegas going on, something had to give, and this ended up being it.

An Inconvenient Truth (documentary, dir. Davis Guggenheim)
I haven't seen this movie, and I don't plan to, and here's why: I am sick to death of the sanctimonious hype about this being a movie that will "change your life" and that everyone "must see." Two people I know from college have all but said that you are a bad human being if you don't see this movie. And it's not like I was super-excited to see it anyway, since most of the overwhelmingly positive reviews focus not on its merits as a movie (although they generally seem to agree that it's competently produced), but on the alleged importance of the message. First of all, the worst possible way to get me to listen to your message is to accuse me of being a bad person if I don't. And secondly, I honestly just don't care about the message anyway. I'm not saying that I don't believe global warming is real, I'm just not interested in hearing about it, or doing anything about it. If the whole planet sinks into the ocean one day, it doesn't much matter to me, and Al Gore isn't about to change my mind. If that makes me a bad person, oh well. Opened limited May 26; in Las Vegas this week

Nacho Libre (Jack Black, Ana de la Reguera, Hector Jimenez, dir. Jared Hess)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I saw Napoleon Dynamite when it was only just on its way to becoming a cultural phenomenon, so I feel like I was able to give it an honest appraisal without being tainted by all the hype and/or backlash. And I think that it's a pretty funny movie, albeit overrated. So I was hoping that Hess could avoid buying into his own hype and just deliver another funny movie, but he's looking more and more like a one-trick pony. This movie isn't very funny and it's certainly not distinctive in the way that Napoleon Dynamite was. It's just another dumb comedy full of fart jokes, and certain people may really like it, but it's not the stuff of lasting careers. Wide release

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

CineVegas mid-point

Or thereabouts. I've been to 14 screenings so far this week and seen two really good features (one of which, The Puffy Chair, would definitely be in my top five films of the year so far, and is already out in limited release) and some surprisingly strong shorts as well. Plus plenty of crap, but that comes with the territory. I'm blogging about my CineVegas experience in detail on the Las Vegas Weekly MySpace page, and if you're interested in more coverage of the festival, the organizers have their own (highly self-congratulatory) blog, and some of the guys from Film Threat are also blogging about their festival experience. My colleague Richard Abowitz, who writes the LA Times' Las Vegas blog, has a number of posts about the festival as well. And of course there will be an orgy of coverage in Las Vegas Weekly this week and next.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

New comics 6/7

Batman: Secrets #4 (Sam Kieth, DC)
I'm kind of up and down on how much I like the story here - the second issue really clicked for me but since then it's only been fitfully interesting. But Kieth is doing his best art in years on this book, helped immensely by Alex Sinclair's vibrant colors. He makes Terry Ammons beautiful and vulnerable in this issue, reminding me a little of the way he used to draw Julie in The Maxx. His visual storytelling has also been really inventive in this series, which makes up for the occasional simplistic symbolism. I'm supposed to be getting his new Oni series, My Inner Bimbo, although my local store hasn't gotten a copy yet, and I'm definitely looking forward to that one as well.

The Exterminators #6 (Simon Oliver/Tony Moore, DC/Vertigo)
I guess this is the start of a new arc, although all of the plot elements from previous issues keep developing, including the mutant cockroaches. I'm really more interested in the way that Oliver is finally developing Henry a little bit, and introducing a much more appealing and viable love interest in this issue to replace Henry's shrill, one-note girlfriend. I finally added this to my pull list, since every month I pick it up and wonder if I like it enough to keep reading, and after six issues, I must like it because I keep picking it up, so I guess I'm officially on board.

Manifest Eternity #1 (Scott Lobdell/Dustin Nguyen, DC/Wildstorm)
I'm glad DC sent me a copy of this and I didn't end up paying for it, because at least I didn't waste my money. I like the idea of a sweeping sci-fi epic about a war between a space-faring empire and a world of magic, but Lobdell's writing is stilted and cliche-filled, and Nguyen's art is muddy and abstract, completely wrong for this genre. He pencils, inks and colors himself, which allows him room to experiment, but the often indistinct figures do a poor job of telling the story, and the tendency to bathe each panel in a single color makes it sometimes hard to discern individual characters. Not that the writing does much to distinguish them anyway. I would have loved for this to be effective, since an ongoing sci-fi epic is something I'm definitely interested in reading, but it's completely uninspired and uninteresting.

Noble Causes #20 (Jay Faerber/Jon Bosco, Image)
Rusty discovers that Rae is a robot and beats her senseless in a sequence that disturbingly echoes domestic violence. I don't know if that's what Faerber was going for, but he makes Rusty look like an unhinged maniac who was just looking for an excuse to beat his girlfriend. Lots of other subplots hum along in the background, including the development of Slate Blackthorne as a conflicted would-be hero, which is an interesting wrinkle. I'm curious to see where the whole Rae storyline is going, since it has the potential to be emotionally devastating for Rusty.

Wonder Woman #1 (Allan Heinberg/Terry Dodson, DC)
This is one I probably wouldn't have picked up if I hadn't gotten a promo copy, since I like Heinberg's work on Young Avengers but have never really cared about Wonder Woman. This is an okay superhero book, with nice art from Dodson (as always, of course, heavy on the cheesecake). It plays off a lot of established Wonder Woman supporting characters that I don't care about, and, unlike Young Avengers, doesn't do much to pull me into the unfamiliar world. The cliffhanger at the end is mildly intriguing, and if I liked Wonder Woman I'd probably stick around. As it is, I don't think I will.

Y the Last Man #46 (Brian K. Vaughan/Pia Guerra & Goran Sudzuka, DC/Vertigo)
We are slowly getting some answers about the plague, as this issue Vaughan teases the idea that it was caused by a specific person. A satisfying conclusion to the strongest arc in a while, with another enticing cliffhanger ending. It's disappointing that Guerra has been unable to complete two arcs in a row now, but at least Sudzuka follows her style closely enough that his pages don't look too out of place.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Movies opening this week

Cars (Voices of Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, dir. John Lasseter)
Although the reviews on this have been mostly positive, a lot of them have been of the "it's pretty good but it's no Finding Nemo" variety, and I find even that a little generous. Honestly, I found this movie boring and dopey, and the only thing that kept my attention was the absolutely amazing animation, at which Pixar just keeps getting better and better. Compare this with Over the Hedge, from DreamWorks - Pixar's closest competitor - and you can see that they're not even in the same league. Of course, the thing about Pixar used to always be that their stories were as accomplished as their visuals, and this time that's just not the case. The story is sappy and predictable, which wouldn't necessarily be a problem (so is Finding Nemo) if it were funny or had compelling characters or were told its story in a unique way. Many reviews have noted the similarity of the story (which finds Wilson's hot-shot race car stranded in a small town and learning to appreciate traditional values) to Doc Hollywood, which I haven't seen in years, but it shares elements with many movies about self-centered big-city types learning to slow down and take life less seriously. Which, again as many reviews have noted, is a fairly condescending premise, and the blanket rural-good urban-bad condemnation that this film engages in is disappointingly simplistic. The jokes are mostly cheesy and the plot meanders all over; the film comes in way too long at almost two hours. I won't call this Pixar's first misstep, since I wasn't that crazy about A Bug's Life or Monsters, Inc., either, but both of those were better than this. DreamWorks might not be able to create amazingly lifelike natural landscapes, but Over the Hedge is much more entertaining than Cars, so as far as I'm concerned, this summer, they win. Wide release

Down in the Valley (Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, Kieran Culkin, dir. David Jacobson)
I really wanted to like this movie more than I did, because it has such an excellent cast and an interesting, daring premise, with Norton as a modern-day cowboy in the San Fernando Valley, acting like he just walked out of Gunsmoke and getting Evan Rachel Wood to fall head-over-heels for him. And the first half is often lyrical, poignant and powerful, driven by solid performances from its main cast and some stunning cinematography. But the more we learn about Norton's character, the less interesting the movie becomes, until it turns into a rather conventional and pointless thriller, with heavy-handed symbolism to boot. Points for ambition, but not enough follow-through. Opened limited May 5; in Las Vegas this week

A Prairie Home Companion (Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan, Kevin Kline, dir. Robert Altman)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I think that any fans of Keillor's radio show will like this movie a lot - I went to the screening with a friend of mine who's a regular listener, and he appreciated the movie much more than I did. Altman fans may be a little underwhelmed, since it's not exactly a movie with a lot on its mind, and any efforts at drama are pretty weak. A co-worker of mine saw this film at ShoWest back in March and proclaimed it the best movie of the year, and early reviews were gushing, so I think I was disappointed that it was so insubstantial and rambly. The songs are nice and some of the stories are amusing (and Meryl Streep gives a wonderful performance), but it definitely did not make me want to turn on Keillor on NPR this weekend. Wide release

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Starting tomorrow night, I'll be spending most of my waking moments at CineVegas, the big annual film festival here in Vegas. (Disclosure: It's owned by the same family that owns Las Vegas Weekly.) The festival gets bigger and more prominent every year, it seems, and over the weekend there were very flattering write-ups in both the New York Times and the LA Times. Since I don't get to go to big festivals like Sundance or Toronto, CineVegas is a highlight of the year for me, a chance to see some of the buzz movies from those festivals as well as discover some interesting indie films looking for distribution. As at any film festival, there's always plenty of crap, but at least it's usually ambitious crap, and every so often you find some brilliant undiscovered gem that you would never have seen otherwise. If nothing else, it's a chance to spend nine days doing nothing but seeing movies, when usually all that other pesky life stuff intrudes.

I'll probably post a wrap-up of sorts here when the festival is over, but in the meantime I'll be blogging about it, along with other LVW contributors, on the Las Vegas Weekly MySpace page. (I know, MySpace is lame, but apparently this is the best way to get people to read it.)

TV preview

Two new shows premiering this week that I watched but didn't end up writing about for Las Vegas Weekly:

Windfall (NBC, Thursdays, 10 p.m.)
This show has been kicking around for over a year, originally developed as a pilot for Fox, and I've been looking forward to it for just as long. Next fall is full of these high concept, serialized shows, but at the time Windfall was announced it was fairly distinctive, and the concept still stands out, following the interconnected lives of 20 people who share a massive lottery jackpot. Unforunately, the show does very little with the unique premise, and if you're looking for a serious examination of how sudden wealth can change your life, forget it. Instead, this is a pretty standard nighttime soap, with plenty of bad dialogue and wooden acting. It has a certain cheesy charm, and occasionally builds some good melodrama. I previewed the first two episodes, and I might watch more only because it's summer and there's not much else on. But like so many of these shows with striking high concepts (Prison Break, Heist, Reunion), this is a great idea and a bungled execution.

Saved (TNT, Mondays, 10 p.m.)
TNT is pairing this with the second season of The Closer, one of my favorite shows on TV, summer or fall. Basically, this is Rescue Me with paramedics instead of firefighters, and, other than its obvious straining to seem edgy and daring, it works well enough. Tom Everett Scott goes against his wholesome image as the main character, who's got a gambling problem and women problems and other problems that he refuses to face, but of course goes above and beyond the call of duty to save the lives of others. Ironic, eh? So, yeah, it's not subtle, but Scott pulls it off, mostly, because he retains enough wholesomeness that you can't help but like him. There's a running gimmick where each time the characters respond to a call, you see flashes of what led people up to the point of ending up in a car wreck, having a heart attack, etc. It's obviously something the producers think is distinctive, but it's totally pointless since these aren't people we ever see again, and they're really just plot devices to get the main characters from one place to another, or to put them in some new situation. When the show calms down on the flashy gimmicks and strained grittiness, though, it has some interesting moments and could develop into something worthwhile.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

New comics 6/1

Battlestar Galactica #0 (Greg Pak/Nigel Raynor, Dynamite)
I'm not usually keen on licensed comics, but I do like Battlestar Galactica, and I picked this up because it was only 25 cents, and I've liked Pak's work on the X-Men: Phoenix - Endsong mini-series. He's also got a good reputation for sci-fi and space opera stories, and the story in this issue isn't bad. Like most licensed comics, especially for properties with such tight, serialized continuity as BG, you can't help but feel that the story is inconsequential, despite its apparently serious revelations. Still, that doesn't necessarily bother me if it's a good story, and this is a pretty good story, or at least one that appears to have potential. But it's not quite good enough to overcome Raynor's atrocious art, which is cartoony and sloppy. None of the characters look like their TV counterparts (the President looks like a 14-year-old girl), the storytelling is weak and the style is all wrong for the serious tone. With better art I might have at least checked out one more issue, but as it is it's not worth bothering.

Black Gas #3 (Warren Ellis/Max Fiumara, Avatar)
Well, this turned out to be sort of pointless. In this issue, our heroes run away from the zombies, shoot the zombies, blow up the zombies and escape from the zombies, only to encounter the obvious twist ending that we've seen in countless other horror stories. Along the way Ellis tries to give them a moment or two of character development, but it doesn't amount to much. There are still some well-done creepy elements, using his interesting idea that the zombies know they're zombies and can't stop themselves (the little boy pleading to die because he's eating his mother was excellent). But this is just another in Ellis's tradition of picking a genre seemingly at random and playing with it a little for three issues without much direction. I have no idea why there's already a sequel set for September, but I don't think I'll be picking it up to find out.

Emissary #1 (Jason Rand/Juan Ferreyra, Image)
In a world without superheroes, some random dude starts flying and stopping jet planes with his mind and declares himself the savior of humanity. It sounded like a cool idea, but the execution here is fairly weak, focused on a cast of regular people and how they react to the coming of the Emissary. They're all stock types - the hotheaded crusading reporter and his by-the-book boss, a pair of put-upon detectives, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later military guy - and Rand's dialogue is often stilted and cliche-ridden. I like Ferreyra's moody art, but this issue doesn't do enough to make me care about who the Emissary is or what he wants to bother coming back to learn more.

The Middle Man Vol. 2 #4 (Javier Grillo-Marxuach/Les McClaine, Viper)
I think about 85% of this issue was a fight scene, with lots of wordless panels and splash pages, and it felt pretty inconsequential. The good guys win, and Grillo-Marxuach tries to add some poignancy to the end of the story, but it feels a little forced. This book is best when it focuses on silly situations and clever dialogue, which is in short supply in this issue. But even if I was sort of disappointed in the ending, it's still a fun book, and I'll pick up another mini if they ever get around to doing one.

Runaways #16 (Brian K. Vaughan/Adrian Alphona, Marvel)
I like how Vaughan confronts the relationship drama in this issue and gets it out in the open, and the way it leads to both moments of startling maturity and immaturity, a very realistic portrait of mercurial teens. Also, it's nice to see Karolina back already, and I'm glad her departure didn't just write her out of the book. Still nervous about who will die, since Vaughan has made every character interesting and valuable, and worth mourning.

Savage Dragon #126 (Erik Larsen, Image)
Finally the whole presidential election storyline is behind us, and Larsen holds back all his stylistic experimentation of late to tell a much more straightforward story about what happens when Mr. Glum takes over the world. It's a good balance between the humorous elements of Mr. Glum's earlier appearances and his current sinister nature, and an amusing exploration of mind control and what happens when a villain gets exactly what he wants. I'm sure Dragon is going to wake up soon and defeat Mr. Glum, but for now I'm sort of enjoying reading about the world where he's in charge.

TV season wrap-up, part the second

Alias (ABC)
It's a testament to how far my interest in this show dropped that I had the final episode on tape for almost a week before I got around to watching it. This is another case (like Felicity) of J.J. Abrams leaving a show he created in the hands of others while he moves on to something else, and not even returning to wrap things up. The finale was fine, I guess, and I like that they had a sort of hit parade of past important characters in the last six or seven episodes. But it answered exactly zero questions about the show's ridiculous mythology (not that I ever expected there were any real answers anyway), and ultimately came off as rather perfunctory. This last season had its moments, but it was plagued by the emphasis on useless new characters, the long hiatus, and the lack of Abrams. And, really, nothing since has compared to the second season finale that found Syd waking up with two years of her life missing. That's the kind of mind-blowing twist that the show was once capable of, but it got diluted over years of implausible and gratuitous twists that piled on top of each other to the point that they ultimately became meaningless.

Lost (ABC)
There were a lot of frustrating things on this show this season, including the often pointless flashbacks that seem to serve only as filler to avoid having too many plot developments in each episode. I'm also a little wary of all the connections between characters that now show up in the flashbacks, connections that I worry will turn out to have little if any significance. That said, this was still overall a fantastic show this season, with some outstanding episodes, and the writers answered a lot of the criticisms in the excellent finale, which provided concrete information about many of the show's biggest mysteries, set up different mysteries for the future and, most importantly, was full of actual important things happening to the characters. Episodes like that give me faith that there really is a carefully crafted master plan, even if I sometimes wonder. I don't know how long they can keep piling on mysteries before everything falls apart, but for now it's still holding together for me.

Invasion (ABC)
I really mourn the loss of this show, as I've mentioned before. A lot of people were frustrated with the slow pace in the first third or so of the season, but I thought the deliberate development of plot and story was incredibly well-executed, and I liked how well we got to know the characters and understand their relationships so that we could care about the ways that the titular invasion disrupted their lives. As I said earlier in the season, this show ended up being a rich allegory for the disintegration of the modern family, and a metaphor for how we relate to our loved ones after they've changed in a way that makes us uncomfortable. Those thematic elements sort of took a backseat to the increasingly urgent alien invasion elements in the second half of this season, which made a lot of people happy but had me longing a bit for the relaxed pace of the early episodes. Nevertheless, the show remained fascinating up until its last moments, in a finale that was satisfying enough as an ending but ambiguous enough to suggest possibilities for a second season that will never happen. Between this show and American Gothic, Shaun Cassidy has crafted two of the most intriguing, layered looks at the supernatural in small towns, both of which were rewarded by being cancelled after one season. I hope he gets a chance to do it again.

Survivor (CBS)
It occurred to me a couple of episodes into this season that I had no idea why I was still watching this show. I don't watch much reality TV, except when I have to write about it, but I've been watching this since it started airing six years ago. Reality TV gets blanket condemnation from a lot of people, but there is a right way to do it to make for entertaining and often fascinating viewing, and this show did that a lot of the time. But after 12 seasons, all it's doing is repeating itself. They've made valiant efforts to tweak the formula and offer something new, but they can't make changes too drastic without risking losing the show's core appeal. So what we get are mostly superficial changes that don't do enough to shake the show out of its doldrums. It's not only the structure of the game that's repetitive, though: They end up in locations that are all very similar, and with types of people who repeat each season as well. Even when there's the occasional strong personality or interesting conflict, it's just not enough to shake off the feeling that we've seen it all before, and I haven't really cared about who won for a few seasons now. So I think it's time to say goodbye to Survivor for me, although it does remain one of the higher-quality reality shows on TV, for whatever that's worth.

My Name is Earl (NBC)
This show started out so well that I suppose it was bound to drop off a little in quality over the course of the season. I laughed out loud several times during most episodes in the first half of the season, even when I was watching alone. But after the brilliant episode with Joy and Crabman's wedding, the quality got a lot more uneven, and there were a few episodes that were complete duds. Part of it was the show settling into a formula, although they continually find ways to tweak that formula, and part of it I'm sure was that I was now expecting something brilliant each week, so the bar was raised. I may not have laughed out loud as often in the second half of the season, but I still regularly chuckled, and got to appreciate the broad, Simpsons-like supporting cast that Greg Garcia and the writers built up over 24 episodes. Even if the laughs have diminished a little, the storytelling has gotten richer, and I have confidence they can keep up the quality in the second season.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Movies opening this week

The Break-Up (Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Aniston, Jon Favreau, Joey Lauren Adams, dir. Peyton Reed)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
A few weeks ago, the comments on this post on Dave Kehr's blog evolved into, among other things, the rather unexpected discussion of whether or not Peyton Reed can be considered an auteur. Having seen and thoroughly enjoyed Reed's first two films (Bring It On and Down With Love), I counted his presence as the director of this film one of its few positives as I went into the screening. And given that I thought the movie was, on the whole, pretty bad, I'm inclined to blame factors other than Reed (a weak script, movie star leads who are more concerned with their images than with good storytelling, studio meddling) for its failure, just as I was inclined to give Reed the credit for his earlier successes. Why? Well, I suppose at least part of it is a desire for there to be auteurs making mainstream movies like this, for there to be someone behind the camera who's more than a hired hand, who's making conscious and informed stylistic decisions that reflect a personal style and an interest in creating a unique artistic oeuvre. Reed may not be that guy, but I think that you can spot an element of personal style in his work, even in this film, which is largely a failure. Reed is obviously enamored of breezy '60s romantic comedies, as evidenced by the Rock Hudson/Doris Day pastiche of Down With Love, but also the light and female-centric tone of Bring It On. The Break-Up, too, is a relationship movie, a "chick flick" if you care for that vulgar term, and it too treats stereotypical female desires seriously and respectfully. On the other hand, as one of the commenters points out on Kehr's blog, you could just as well consider writer Jessica Bendinger the auteur of Bring It On, and in fact I was much more excited to see her latest film, Stick It (which she both wrote and directed) than I was to see Reed's. And, of course, Stick It is much more stylistically similar to Bring It On than Down With Love or The Break-Up are.

I don't necessarily have a point here, inasmuch as I can't really say whether I consider Reed an auteur or not. I do think that the rejection of auteurism in the face of increasingly anonymous directing styles for Hollywood productions is too extreme a reaction; all you have to do is look at the resume of someone like Donald Petrie to see that even degenerate hackery can be a sustainable personal style in modern Hollywood. For my money, I'd pick John Stockwell as the modern stealth mainstream auteur, and I think his personal style is evident to anyone who watches his films. But I also think that the idea of writers as auteurs nowadays can theoretically carry nearly as much weight when we're talking about mainstream Hollywood product (and not, say, Charlie Kaufman). Bendinger, for example, has a pretty cohesive filmography, full of light, fun movies for and about teen girls (The Truth About Charlie notwithstanding). And for quite some time I looked forward to the latest project from writers Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, who penned the clever and entertaining scripts for Legally Blonde and Ten Things I Hate About You. Then again, they also wrote She's the Man; perhaps we ought to blame that one on the director. Wide release

The Omen (Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Mia Farrow, dir. John Moore)
Speaking of auteurs of modern mainstream cinema, Armond White considers John Moore to be the heir to Sam Peckinpah, but to me this film just establishes him as the king of the pointless note-for-note remake (his 2004 version of The Flight of the Phoenix was similarly redundant). Really, there is nothing new here, and there are several shots lifted directly from the 1976 Richard Donner original, which is generally considered a horror classic but which I found rather dated, cheesy and awkward. This version doesn't improve on any of that, and Liev Schreiber is certainly no Gregory Peck (although there's a certain joy in watching Mia Farrow play the exact opposite of her legendary role in Rosemary's Baby). Of course, to get back to the auteur discussion, maybe it's not all Moore's fault - he used the same screenplay as the original (with a few tweaks by an uncredited script doctor). What I was really curious about in seeing this movie was the alleged abuse of 9/11 imagery, something that Moore specifically added to this new version, but it amounted only to a single image at the very beginning of the film, and to me seemed like much ado about nothing. I mean, sure, it's sort of cheap to use the image of the World Trade Center coming down as a gimmick in your crappy horror movie, but it's not like images of real tragedies in other countries haven't been used as shorthand for "things are bad" in numerous other movies over the years. Because it's "our" tragedy, we think we're special, but the outrage to me is deeply hypocritical and lends a political weight to this film that it just doesn't have. Wide release, on Tuesday (6/6/06, har de har)