Friday, June 29, 2007

Movies opening this week

Evening (Claire Danes, Vanessa Redgrave, Toni Collette, Patrick Wilson, Hugh Dancy, dir. Lajos Koltai)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Usually these failed prestige projects don't start showing up until at least September, but here we have a movie that might as well have just been cut up into Oscar clips (that also would have meant I wouldn't have to spend two hours watching it). In its own way, just as formulaic as a bad summer blockbuster, and just as annoying to watch. Wide release

Live Free or Die Hard (Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Maggie Q, dir. Len Wiseman)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I will out myself as a bad child of the '80s and admit here that I have only a passing familiarity with the Die Hard franchise. I would have educated myself thoroughly had I known more than three hours before the Weekly went to press that I was going to review this movie (yikes), but since I didn't expect to write the review I didn't bother to update my knowledge, which consists of seeing bits and pieces of the first movie on TV over the years, never seeing the second movie, and seeing the third movie when it was released in theaters but not remembering a single thing about it (including whether or not I liked it). I know I should at least see the first movie, which was recently named the greatest action movie of all time by Entertainment Weekly, and I probably will get around to it eventually. Maybe moreso now that I actually enjoyed this latest installment, which is a big dumb action movie but mostly fun to watch. And given the generally dismal quality of this summer's big-ass blockbusters, it's probably the best Hollywood spectacle of the season (just edging out Spider-Man 3). That's not really saying much, but if you're going to go to the theater and catch a summer movie on the big screen, this is the one to see. Wide release

Ratatouille (Voices of Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garofalo, Peter O'Toole, dir. Brad Bird)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
There seems to be an amazing case of critical groupthink when it comes to Pixar movies, or maybe it's that I just don't get it. I thought this was a perfectly entertaining little movie, with some admittedly amazing animation, but the rapturous reviews declaring it the best movie of the year or talking about how it has such depth as to move one to tears are sort of baffling to me. I didn't think it was all that much better than, say, Flushed Away. I don't want to rag on Pixar, because I think they generally put out excellent films (and this is a good one as well), but I wonder if the blind devotion to everything they do has gone a little too far. Wide release

Sicko (documentary, dir. Michael Moore)
Ah, Michael Moore. I am not very politically inclined and thus I sort of dread the release of a new Michael Moore movie, since it's pretty much impossible to talk about his filmmaking as divorced from his politics (as well it should be, really). So I'm not going to get into an in-depth analysis of his arguments and why they do or don't work. I will say that this is probably Moore's film with the strongest basic assumption - that the U.S. healthcare system is screwed up - and that the first third of the film, with its portraits of people who've been screwed over by their insurance companies, is very effective. But when Moore travels to other countries to highlight their universal healthcare systems, his portrayal is so one-sided and rosy that it becomes suspicious. Surely these systems can't be perfect, and by pretending they are Moore does a disservice to his own point of view. He shouldn't be expected to present dissenting opinions on everything he advocates, but to acknowledge the shortcomings of the systems in Canada, Britain, France and especially Cuba would make them seem more real. The movie makes it look like there is a quick fix for our American system, when in reality none of the solutions are quick or infallible. It's sad that Moore is able to take a point this solid and universal and muddy it with his typical gimmickry (the much-publicized trip to Guantanamo Bay to ask for medical care for 9/11 rescue workers) and simplistic fawning (the entire Cuba segment) into something questionable. Wide release

Friday, June 22, 2007

Movies opening this week

1408 (John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, dir. Mikael Hafstrom)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
As a dedicated Stephen King fan, I am well-acquainted with all of the awful, awful films based on his work (and that's just among the ones I've seen). Since nearly every one of his novels has already been filmed, some more than once, producers end up at the well of the short stories more and more often, most of which can't sustain a feature film (and some not even a TV episode, as the mediocre Nightmares & Dreamscapes series proved). I never thought 1408 was a particularly memorable story, although it had a few creepy elements, and it certainly never seemed like a candidate for a movie treatment. Re-reading the story before seeing the movie only confirmed this opinion. So I went in not expecting much, and was pleasantly surprised simply in finding a competent, often effective movie, thanks mostly to Cusack. So even though I'd recommend this film to King fans, it's clearly on the lower end of the scale when it comes to King adaptations: better than, say, Children of the Corn or The Mangler, but not nearly in the league of Misery or Carrie. Wide release

Evan Almighty (Steve Carell, Morgan Freeman, Lauren Graham, dir. Tom Shadyac)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It's sad that Steve Carell has already stooped to making mainstream crap like this before really establishing his own presence as the lead in more distinctive fare. He did bring a few laughs to this movie, though, so I suppose that's something. Jonah Hill (who is everywhere these days) also had some nice, understated funny moments, and because I am a fan of stupid puns I liked that Evan's wife was named Joan (of ark, get it?), and also that they resisted the impulse to ever point that out directly to the audience. But seriously, that was probably the best thing about the movie. Wide release

A Mighty Heart (Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi, dir. Michael Winterbottom)
This seems to have become a very polarizing film, although the reviews are positive overall. I've read some really harsh ones from critics I respect, including the Weekly's own Mike D'Angelo, Las Vegas CityLife's Jeannette Catsoulis and Slant's Ed Gonzalez. I understand the criticisms to a point - this is clearly a film about Mariane Pearl rather than Daniel Pearl, and maybe she comes off as a little self-centered to be producing a movie that's basically about how awesome she is. And, yes, Angelina Jolie is a ginormous star and all of those tabloid stories about her adopting orphans and jetting around the globe with Brad Pitt may distract you from appreciating the movie on its own terms. But I don't see how that's the movie's fault. I mean, if Jolie had given a bad or overly showy performance, okay, but she does quite a good job and is almost always understated (save one scene that critics seem to either love or hate), and if you can't get Us Weekly out of your mind while watching the movie then I think that's your problem. When we watch movies from 40, 50 years ago, are we distracted by the gossip and scandals that surrounded famous actors back then? Of course not; most of the time we are not even aware of it. I don't think it's fair to fault Jolie or the filmmakers for a passing fascination that will not last nearly as long as the movie will.

That said, this is not a performance that should catapult Jolie to the Oscars - it's effective within the framework of the film, but it's no better than Panjabi's as Pearl's fellow Wall Street Journal reporter or Irfan Khan's as the dogged Pakistani police officer who leads the investigation into the missing reporter. Winterbottom focuses on the minutiae and turns the film into a procedural rather than a political treatise, which is another thing people have criticized but which I found fascinating. Yes, you know the outcome before the movie starts, but watching how relentlessly the characters pursue the kidnappers in the face of enormous obstacles is both sad and touching. At any rate, it's the same feeling that drove United 93, which nearly every critic loved. This is a much better film than Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo, which was a clumsy mix of documentary and narrative, and fairly heavy-handed. Here he simply presents what happens, and lets the political realities intrude when they are relevant. What happened to Daniel Pearl was the result of all sorts of geopolitical forces, but this movie is about what those forces really mean on a personal level, and at that it is quite effective. Wide release

Monday, June 18, 2007

TV premiering tonight: Heartland

Following the success of The Closer, TNT is really going all-out to establish themselves as a force in original programming, but unlike some cable outlets, they're doing it with very traditional shows that could easily (aside from the occasional curse word) be at home on network TV. I love The Closer, but it is, after all, a police procedural, and last summer's Saved (which didn't get picked up for a second season) was really just another tweak on the doctor show. This summer will see another cop show (albeit one with an angel in the supporting cast), and the most conventional new drama the channel's yet aired, Heartland.

I only had time to watch the first of the two episodes that TNT sent me, but it certainly didn't put me in the mood to watch a second. This is the kind of bland, sappy show that even CBS would probably pass over, if not (maybe) for the relatively strong cast. But even Treat Williams, Kari Matchett (from the very underrated Invasion), Morena Baccarin (of Serenity/Firefly) and Dabney Coleman combined can't save the horribly trite writing and overwhelming sentimentality, not to mention the mountain of hospital-show cliches. Williams is a transplant doctor with a prickly manner a la House, an ex-wife he still pines for and a teenage daughter who's into safe TV-show rebellion. The focus only on transplant patients limits the kind of stories the show can tell (as did the focus on brain surgery in CBS's short-lived 3 Lbs.), but it's not like they're trying for anything innovative here anyway. By the time Matchett's ex-wife character said to Williams, "I'll take my heart and leave" (referring, of course, to an actual transplantable heart in a cooler and her own, emotionally damaged organ), that was it for me. TNT, Mondays, 10 p.m.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Movies opening this week

Um, yeah, so I basically haven't seen any movies opening this week since I've been very busy at CineVegas. All I've got is this obscure indie movie that no one cares about (including me). I'll be back at full capacity next week.

Steel City (Tom Guiry, John Heard, America Ferrera, Clayne Crawford, dir. Brian Jun)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This movie really is like something I'd see at CineVegas and kind of half-heartedly dismiss (it did in fact play at Sundance). It's not horrible, but it's so indie-cliche that it's boring, and it's not all that well-executed. Really, they're lucky that between shooting and release America Ferrera started doing Ugly Betty and became a big star. I bet that really helped the movie get distribution. Opened limited May 25; in Las Vegas this week

Friday, June 08, 2007

Movies opening this week

Hostel: Part II (Lauren German, Roger Bart, Bijou Phillips, Heather Matarazzo, dir. Eli Roth)
Yeah, so plot-wise this is virtually the same movie as the first one, with American girls swapped in for American boys, and despite Roth's posturing in the press, it'll never be mistaken for anything more than a cheap, trashy exploitation movie. But it's actually pretty good at being that, and the slight changes in structure make it a bit more successful than the first movie, I think. Roth has wisely pretty much ditched the political commentary (aside from one passing reference to New Orleans), which was muddled and unsuccessful the first time out, and allowed his main characters to be mostly sympathetic without embodying any ugly-American stereotypes. He also toys with audience expectations a bit, teasing the gore in amusing ways, and offers a good alternative to the ending of the first movie. The time spent getting to know the wealthy torturers is a little less successful, but it does open up the story a little. I don't think this formula would work again, but the second time around finds enough variation to be satisfying for those who don't expect too much.

As for the moralistic hand-wringing about so-called torture porn and the alleged misogyny of this film, I find it incredibly tiresome and a little laughable. From interviews, it's clear that Roth is a self-centered dick, and getting all outraged about the moral implications of his stupid horror movies just gives him license to be more of an arrogant asshole about his ability to push buttons. I am often the first person to call out misogyny in mainstream movies, but here the accusations seem based wholly on the idea that the victims are women. Is it not possible to have a woman in any sort of peril without being accused of woman-hating? Was the first film accused of man-hating? What happens to the females in this movie is no worse (or better) than what happened to the males in the first movie (or what happens to one male late in this installment). It's gross, sure, and if you find the bloody torture scenes distasteful then you should stay away from this movie. But its moral content is more about nihilistic despair (which is a point of view I can sympathize with) than any anger directed at a specific gender, nationality or ethnic group. Wide release

Surf's Up (Voices of Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, Jon Heder, dir. Ash Brannon & Chris Buck)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
No gruesome torture in this one, just cute penguins surfing cutely. It's all harmless fun, and probably perfectly acceptable for kids, but nothing to rush out to see. I think computer animation has become so ubiquitous now that there really needs to be some innovative movie to come along and shake up the form. This one isn't it, and I fear that with the immense resources and amount of time needed to make these movies, it'll be a while before one with a singular enough vision (although Brad Bird's The Incredibles comes close) comes along. Wide release

Thursday, June 07, 2007


For the next ten days, I'll be spending virtually all my time at the annual CineVegas film festival. As I say every year, the festival keeps getting bigger and bigger, and this year continues that trend. A publicist told me today that there are over 200 credentialed press members for the festival this year. The amount of growth I've seen in the five years I've been going to CineVegas is amazing. This does mean longer lines and more industry douchebags who care about nothing except being seen, but it also means lots of interesting movies and adventurous people to see them, so overall it seems positive to me.

I'll be posting sporadically on here, then, for a little bit, but in the meantime check out Las Vegas Weekly's CineVegas page, where I'll be posting my reviews and contributing to the CineVegas blog (along with other Weekly writers) throughout the week.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Wire

Since it's apparently the greatest TV show of all time, and a friend of mine has been steadily telling me I ought to watch it for what seems like years, I moved HBO's The Wire to the top of my TV-show Netflix queue, and I recently finished watching the first season. I'm not yet prepared to proclaim it the greatest show of all time, but it is pretty damn good, an effective antidote to tidy police procedurals for anyone who wants to learn about how real cops do business, and an amazingly bleak look at crime in modern urban America.

What's most impressive is how the show can be so dark and cynical and yet make you root so purely for its characters to succeed, for justice to be done even when it's set up from the very beginning that justice is almost impossible to achieve. Det. McNulty (Dominic West), sometimes seemingly the only good cop in Baltimore, does everything he can to piss off his superiors, ignore the chain of command and neglect to kiss the right asses, and yet we still hold out hope that he'll succeed, that he'll bring down the drug-dealing empire of Avon Barksdale just because he's so damn dedicated and good at what he does.

There's also that thrill that comes from seeing characters like McNulty, Kima and Lester, who are clearly so smart and dedicated and underappreciated, come together and work in harmony to get something done, even when you know that theirs is largely a futile enterprise. Creator David Simon manages to give audiences that satisfaction from even very small victories, because the world he's created is so unforgiving that any success at all seems like a triumph.

I don't want to make it sound like this is a depressing show to watch, though; yes, its depiction of police work and institutional corruption in the big city is a bit of a downer, but, again, it's the people who do good work in spite of these obstacles, and often in spite of themselves, that form the core of the show. The Wire is known for its well-rounded depiction of criminals as well, and people like D'Angelo Barksdale, who begins the show getting acquitted for a murder he definitely did commit, demonstrate decency and genuine moral struggle even in a criminal world where murder is just another part of the business. In his way, D'Angelo is as trapped by the entrenched practices and expectations of drug-dealing as McNulty is by the hierarchy of the police force.

And amid all the failures and deaths and pyrrhic victories, there are some great performances and some genuine warm humor. My favorite scene of the entire season (and a famous one among the show's fans) comes as McNulty and his partner Bunk reconstruct an entire crime scene over several minutes, using only the word "fuck" and slight variations thereof. It's funny, it's insightful, and it tells you all you need to know about the case, these two people and their approach to police work using essentially one obscene word.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Movies opening this week

Knocked Up (Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, dir. Judd Apatow)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Although I enjoyed this movie well enough, I'm not with the surprising groundswell of critics who seem to think it's an instant comedy classic. There's definitely some overrating going on here, maybe because most comedies are so bad that finding one that's both funny and well-constructed as a film is such a shock that people's reactions are a little exaggerated. And maybe it's just my hatred of children, but I definitely found something off-putting about the movie's family-values message and its reprimand to aimless slackers to grow up and take on some responsibility. Slate's Dana Stevens, in a mildly positive (although marked as "rotten" on Rotten Tomatoes) review, talks about this a little, as well as Apatow's handling of women (which I thought was more effective than she did). She's one of the few critics to seriously address any negatives about this movie, especially from a sociopolitical standpoint, and I think that's a position that's being overlooked out of the shock of "Man, this shit is funny." Wide release

Mr. Brooks (Kevin Costner, William Hurt, Demi Moore, Dane Cook, dir. Bruce A. Evans)
Casting Kevin Costner and Dane Cook as a serial killer and his peeping-tom admirer, respectively, is certainly a bold move, but not much in this movie pays off. Costner is always at his best playing loveable schlubs, so his polished and tortured businessman who can't resist the allure of killing never really comes to life, despite an occasional mischievous gleam in his eye. Hurt is better as Mr. Brooks' alter ego/imaginary friend, because he knows that the only way to get through a movie like this is to ham it up as much as possible. Too bad he can't save the muddled plot and stiff direction, or account for Moore's awful performance as a hard-nosed detective who's also worth millions. There are random plot digressions and loose ends galore here, and standard serial-killer psychology that's been tired since the first Silence of the Lambs sequel. Unless you're a Dane Cook hater who (spoiler alert!) wants to see the annoying comedian's neck slashed open with a shovel, steer clear of this one. Wide release

Offside (Sima Mobarak-Shahi, Shayesteh Irani, Ayda Sadeqi, dir. Jafar Panahi)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I've seen very few Iranian movies, but I didn't realize until looking up info online later that Panahi was actually also the director of Crimson Gold, one of the handful of other Iranian films I've seen. Gold was grim and pessimistic, but this film, despite its clear political message, is optimistic and life-affirming, suggesting that the artificial boundaries of a repressive society like Iran's can be brought down by the unifying force of soccer. It's sweet but unsentimental, and entertaining in its pointed social commentary. Opened limited Mar. 23; in Las Vegas this week